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Greenbacks a Concern for Eco-Friendly Products

Jill Rowen -- Home Textiles Today, June 8, 2009

Green, the cash kind, seems to be more on the minds of consumers than eco-friendly offerings in the home textile marketplace right now. The green movement is taking new shape as many vendors try to live the ideal, even though in practice, it's a slow progression. The green buzz words of the last few years have given way to new ones: "value," and "bargain."

"I believe it's true that 'green' has taken a backseat to 'value,'" noted Dan Schecter, vp, Carpenter, who is pragmatic about pricing in a green world. As much as retailers and consumers want to be environmentally correct, not all want to pay the price. According to Schecter, "The fact is that as bags, tags, fills, cotton, etc., gain popularity the cost of the raw material will increase. You can't have it both ways. If you want to put out a green product, green package or whatever, there is a supply and demand issue that has to be dealt with — and that of course is cost."

"Consumers may talk green, but they've shown that they don't wan to pay more for it. That was the case even before this recent economic crisis hit," noted Tom Bowles, ceo, Berskshire Blanket. The company is currently developing a recycled polyester product, but the economic realities are hard to avoid. "Right now, recycled polyester costs more than new polyester, and until we can find a way to make it the same price, they will not pay. Consumers may pay more for food, as they see a health benefit, but it isn't true yet in home textiles."

In fact, the perceived benefit of green products is where the market has fallen short, according to Arthur Viente, business manager, Blissliving Home. "Consumers need to understand the true benefit, if there is one, to any eco-friendly products, not just see a label. For example, using organic materials or vegetable base dyes sound romantic, but what is the true benefit to the consumer? No one is speaking to this in real terms."

"It all boils down to price value relationships," Viente added. "How do we demonstrate this to the consumer? If we make a product that is visually appealing, comparable in care and quality, and we demonstrate some benefit beyond personal pleasure (like reduces waste and emissions by X percent and improves quality of life, etc.) these products can be very competitive in the market."

"Unfortunately, there is this perception that eco-friendly is automatically more expensive, even if presented with a good price on a product," noted Beth Mack, chief merchandising officer, Hollander Home Fashions. "We have to retrain the brain, and really let the consumer know in detail how they're helping by going green." Currently, Hollander is working on developing new, "greener" down-proofing for its products rather than using the standard coatings that aren't as eco-friendly. Using technology from Germany and organic materials from India, the issue now facing Mack is how to price the product correctly for retailers and consumers.

"It does have to be a price/value proposition," agreed Nancy Golden, vp, marketing and brand management, WestPoint Home. "Retailers want to be eco-friendly, but don't necessarily want the up charges associated with it."

For WestPoint Home, its line of Ecopure products may be the answer. A pillow offering, already in department stores such as Kohl's, is part of the line featuring fills made from recycled plastic bottles, including comforters and mattress pads. A new addition at last market, 2nd Nature, includes towels made from recycled fiber.

Nina Nadash, home textile merchandiser, Lenzing Fibers, is also seeing progress. "People have been greenwashed to believe that green means expensive. However, retailers such as Ikea, which sells its own private label brands, is proving them wrong," she said. "You can't be everything to everyone, but you can make your business more sustainable, make a product attractive and run volume." According to Nadash, use of its cellulose fibers, including the trademarked Tencel, is growing fastest in the military and hospitality sectors, while the retail market lags behind.

"Pricing is definitely coming down on most 'green' materials. As a general rule, we are seeing that if the product price is about the same, and there is no 'penalty' to comfort or other features, then 'green' items will continue to attract business," said Chad Altbaier, vp, sales and marketing, Downlite. "We still believe that with the right 'value-proposition,' many customers will still respond to 'green.'"

Even though the number of green products on shelves is still a small percentage of the market, and even though the pricing issues are still being fought, most vendors are doing their part to be good corporate citizens in the green movement.

Scott Howard, vp sales, JLA, sees a slow but forward progression. "We will certainly continue to look at opportunities, but the whole industry will move forward not just in producing 'green' products, but in packaging as well." The company has been using sustainable bamboo in its Natori line of products.

According to Bowles, Berkshire has worked with dye companies to make use of more earth-friendly dyes. In addition, new equipment at one dye plant helped it save 50% of the water used in processing. In addition, Berkshire is looking to change its PVC packaging to less toxic PIVA packaging. The company hopes to have its recycled polyester product ready to show before the end of the year.

Viente noted that new packaging efforts are underway at Blissliving as well. "We continue to research ways we can improve our existing production methods, acquisition of materials, and how we invest in promoting our products to improve the overall eco friendly reality of our company," he said. "You'll see some changes in our packaging this year that speaks to this issue; but, more importantly, we are becoming more active with organizations that have true impact on the world around us (Food for Others, Humanity, for example)."

"We are replacing some of our formulas with renewable resources and will continue to seek out workable alternatives," noted Schecter at Carpenter. Among its offerings is Qualatex memory foam, which features many of the attributes, but less of the toxins used in latex.

According to Altbaier, Downlite is continuing to promote the very sustainable Tencel fabric for comforter and pillow shell, as well as some brand new 100% post consumer recycled polyester fiber fills. "We have found superior recycled fibers in the market place that truly look, act, and feel like virgin fibers but are made from regenerated P.E.T. bottles. We are also putting a lot of effort in sourcing environmentally friendly packaging materials; including recycled paper inserts and EVA/PEVA vinyl zipper bags," he said. "Our innovative reusable packaging / closet storage bag concept has been incredibly well-received by our customers."

Hollander is working on a number of internal initiatives, including reconstructing corrugated boxes and reconfiguring cartons to be more efficient and reduce waste. According to Mack, a big shift toward more sustainable packaging is a priority, and will be seen not only at Hollander, but across the home textiles market. One of the recent big sellers at Fred Meyer was a Hollander pillow packaged in a reusable grocery bag. "The consumer really does want to be as green as possible," said Mack.

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