How a Cambridge, MA -based furniture company promotes sustainable living
by Polina Malozemova
It is a common challenge for a small business to have little to no leverage when it comes to discussions about sourcing renewable energy, buying biodegradable chemical components, or using organic produce. The reasons that many small businesses are not motivated to “go green” are plenty.
Suppliers tend to charge a premium for all things “sustainably sourced” or “organic”, and when you don’t have a bottomless credit line with a bank, it’s hard to keep the prices competitive. Generating renewable energy on site usually requires a large up-front investment, and saving for that takes time. So, how does a small company approach doing business with these constraints in mind?
It’s simply not just about the sale. It’s about how your business fits into your community, your environment, and your personal values. Small business owners have a much better understanding of this than a big box retailer does. Members of the Climate Action Business Association (CABA) know this value-creating mindset very well. These businesses know how upstream decisions influence worker’s conditions and how their end-of-life processes influence the ecological footprint of their products.
Artisan’s Trading is a Cambridge-based furniture company that sustainably sources all of their hardwood furniture from Indonesia, using local fair-trade labor. At the same time, the company keeps its prices at least at a third less than the market’s average. Their supply chain is international, yet it is as short as it is transparent. Built around the idea that business should be good for people and the plant, Artisan’s Trading embodies the triple bottom line approach, evaluating their performance from financial, social, and ecological standpoints.
Ever since Artisan’s Trading joined CABA, the need to highlight the company’s elegant supply chain came quickly. The company, jointly operated by Baylor Bennett and Azem Dervisevic, has developed a unique sustainability approach that incorporates community engagement.
Supply Chain – Community Engagement – Sustainable Thinking
Q: So how did it all begin?
B.B.: It all started in Indonesia. That was March 2016. It was based around IFEX, the Indonesia International Furniture Expo. Indonesia doesn’t really export much into the US, at least in furniture. So everyone was very excited to see us. That trip was the turning point when Azem and I said, ‘let’s really give this business a chance’.
All of these company owners invited us out to see their factories and meet their workers. Most of them are family-based operations. Some of them are 2-nd and 3-rd generation furniture makers that are now studying business and doing their own exports. Some of them are expats (Dutch and Italian). There are all kinds of people that are running these furniture companies where they are harvesting eco-friendly woods. A lot of that wood is reclaimed.
Q.: Was it tough to build up that responsible kind of supply chain internationally?
B.B.: I think it was rather easy. We were strict about what we wanted and we were so uncompromising that it made it easy to filter everybody out. Either you meet that criteria or you don’t. I think when you start to waiver in that – that’s when it starts to get complicated and you start making sacrifices. But we sought out the right suppliers. We found the suppliers with the right sources for wood. All of their teak was farmed. You can tell by the logs if they were farmed or not, just by the way they are groomed and straightness of the logs. We insisted on that and we do not mind paying extra for that.
There is a major problem with deforestation around the globe and where the companies are sourcing the wood from. We found that in trying to be sustainable that it is difficult to know where it comes from, since wood doesn’t get a serial number. We visited the factories, and the workers there are super nice. We had learned a bit about their labor practices and everything else.
Because it is South East Asia and it is close to China, people expect low quality and they expect shitty practices, but Indonesia is very, very strict. If you are caught doing something illegal, you are going to suffer extreme consequences. In many ways, they are much more strict than the US. It doesn’t stop the illegal stuff from happening completely, and it’s very easy to export that [illegal, “deforested” wood]. As far as wood goes, it’s a tricky business. You ensure quality by building these relationships with the suppliers. That’s the best we can do.
We visited a lot of lumber yards there – I went to the local hardware store where they [local workers] buy their tools. While there I saw the bigger picture of how the whole process was happening. But at the end of the day we leave and they make the furniture. It’s a relationship built on trust, because there is no paperwork [to trace sustainability].
And it’s the same way with fair trade labor. For us to actually get certified fair trade, we would have to have a fair trade representative on site at the factory, meeting certain qualifications. It’s sort of like getting an organic stamp, especially if you are dealing with an operation of the third party, it’s very difficult to do. We trust our suppliers, we go there, we inspect it, we do our due diligence as much as we can, without infringing on their business any more than we have to, and our customers have to trust us.
The biggest downside to this business is that everything is handmade and it is all custom. It has to ship here and it takes minimum four months for something to get here. Our next container will probably not get here for at least another 6 months, and that also depends on how quickly we can sell current inventory. It all comes by ship, all containers. For shipping internationally, this is just about as eco-friendly as you can get. It’s not ideal for time, but it gets here and it’s very cost effective.
Now that we have such reliable suppliers, and because of the technologies such as Skype, we can have all the necessary conversations online. They can show us videos of all the pieces and samples, so we don’t need to travel there every year. Obviously it’s better to see in person, and we certainly want to visit every other year. And I think it’s something that at one point will become necessary to do once a year, just because of the volume of our order.
Q.: Are you looking to hire new designers Here in Boston?
B.B.: Yeah, we want to keep everything local, certainly within the New England region. Our goal is to do more in-house design. We want to supply local designers with an opportunity to create a line of furniture. We are starting to sort of curate these designers now.
We are currently partnering on an internship program with MassArt, and will be accepting applications for design internships this Fall 2016. There is so much talent around here, but it is really hard to make a living doing furniture. We are trying to give the little guys the opportunity.
B.B.: It’s the first custom piece we’ve done, the Boston table. It is a coffee table with a carved teak slab top and there are blue stones inlaid to be the Charles river. With a resin coat over the top. It’s beautiful. It does show off what our suppliers are capable of, and what we are capable of doing with their help.
Q,: In terms of sustainability, what did you choose not to do?
B.B.: No MDF, no glue, all hard wood. These pieces, every one of them will last a lifetime, and when it’s done it will decompose because it is all wood. Except these coffee tables, they have epoxy resin coat on top. The epoxy resin will actually last forever, it’s kind of like petrified wood at this point. So, no illegal wood. At the end of the day, no design is worth that. We can always get wood from somewhere else. We have Long Leaf Lumber right next door.
Generally, I don’t like pieces that are really wasteful. Form always follows function. A good use of space and best use of materials are important. It is always challenging because natural wood is always moving, it is never really dead. It is breathing, it is always absorbing moisture and air. It is expanding and contracting, so it is a living, breathing thing. That’s the challenge of natural wood. Sometimes the drawer sticks, sometimes it doesn’t – but most of our customers like that. They are buying heirloom quality furniture.
Q.: What does sustainability mean to you?
B.B.: We need to take advantage to all the resources that are available to us to build hardwood furniture in a more sustainable fashion.
I grew up on a farm, we used to hike a lot, I spent a lot of time in the woods. And the lesson was always repeated to us: “Leave it better than the way you found it.” If you found trash on the trail, pick it up. So we always had a plastic bag stuffed into our backpacks just to pick up the trash. I bike everywhere, haven’t driven a car in 10 years. My wife and I don’t own a car, we bike our toddler son all over the place. We love our bike lifestyle, and people think we are crazy, but they are the people who really haven’t given it a try.
Q.: Can every person do that?
B.B.: Every person should [practice environmental] thinking. We have done so much and continue to do so much [environmental] damage, that it is not even an option anymore. The requirement of being a human on this Earth is that you need to think about the planet, and what you’re doing to it. It’s like, treat people nice, do good, be good, treat the planet nice, don’t be a jerk.
We need to change our thinking and break some of these habits. We do a lot of educating when people come in this warehouse. We tell them right away that these are eco-friendly woods and we use fair labor practices, because when you enter this warehouse you need to be thinking about the fact that this is sustainable furniture, first and foremost. Otherwise, we are just another furniture store.
Q.: After this interview, what is going to keep you up at night?
B.B.: Selling furniture. And my son. He is 19 months, he keeps me up sometimes. Everything that we are doing [at Artisan’s Trading], we are trying to do the right thing. But at the end of the day, if we are not selling furniture we are out of business. So, how do I sell more furniture.