Tuesday, February 20, 2007

South Cone's Sustainable Furniture-Making Serves Growing Consumer Demand; Activism at Seat of New Global Council

The Company
South Cone Trading Company
19038 South Vermont Avenue
Gardena, CA 90248
Phone: [310] 538-5797
Web: www.southcone.com

Founded: 1987
Employees: Started with just two. Now, 420 people work in South Cone's corporate headquarters; showrooms in High Point, N.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco; and in worker-friendly factories -- i.e., Ivope, in Santa Fe, Argentina, and Exportimo, in Lima, Peru.

Contact: Einer A. Elsner: einar.elsner@gmail.com

The Business
South Cone Trading Company makes and markets high-end home furnishings that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council [FSC], a nonprofit organization which promotes the practice of sustainable forestry by setting forth the world's strongest principles, criteria and standards that span economic, social and environmental concerns; and the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood Program, which offers independent auditing, certification and promotion of FSC-certified forest products to improve forest management by providing economic incentives to businesses that practice responsible forestry.

The Buzz
According to the annual Co-operative Bank Ethical Consumerism Report and other sources, consumers' commitment to "green" homes is on the rise. South Cone is the world leader in creating products that enhance the beauty of homes and preserve the beauty of the natural environment, and is one of the furniture industry's most influential voices in promoting economically, socially and environmentally ethical goods.

Gerry Cooklin, South Cone's founder and CEO, has created an innovative new organization, the Sustainable Furniture Council, which brings together 40-plus representatives of the home furnishings industry, plus organizations that are committed to responsible business practices and promoting furniture that is produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way. The council is scheduled to become a legally chartered industry group sometime this month.

The Partners
* Forest Stewardship Council
* The Nature Conservancy
* Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood Program. SmartWood's global reach extends to 58 countries, with more than 1,675 certified operations covering 101 million acres. South Cone is among the FSC-certified suppliers of wood furniture and components listed in a free online resource from the Rainforest Alliance's SmartGuides.
* World Wildlife Fund
* Key certified-wood suppliers: La Chonta Ltd., in Bolivia; San Luis, in Bolivia; and Aurapel, in Argentina

The Catalyst
Gerry Cooklin was born in Peru and grew up in the U.S. After travelling extensively, the avid lover of the outdoors launched a home-furnishings company featuring South American goods, and dubbed it South Cone -- after the cone-like shape of the South American continent -- in 1987.

In just 10 years, as demand for handmade South American accessories grew, Cooklin built, then expanded, a small factory where he created home accents from reclaimed woods, and acquired a furniture factory in Argentina. By 1997, his creativity, design sense and management skills had grown South Cone into Peru's largest furniture manufacturer, responsible for 75% of the country's production.

En route to his company's meteoric rise in the furniture industry, Cooklin also gained a keen understanding of the pressures that industry and logging put on the environment; e.g., the detrimental effects of mahogany harvesting in the Peruvian rainforest. In 1998, after an epiphany, of sorts, while camping in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, he hired forestry engineers to improve South Cone's harvesting practices; developed new sources for wood; and researched alternative wood species for making furniture.

The Strategy
Cooklin was determined to make high-quality goods in a sustainable manner. Seeking like-minded organizations, he educated himself about FSC, an international nonprofit dedicated to setting management standards that allow use of natural resources without harming forests' long-term health.

The Process
After Cooklin's initial attempts to develop the first FSC-certified forest in Peru fell flat [evidently, potential Peruvian partners who owned logging rights in the Amazon couldn't quite grasp his vision of both protecting and employing the forest's resources], he moved on to the Pelcazu Valley of the Peruvian Amazon. There, The Nature Conservancy had already made great strides in promoting sustainable forest management.

Cooklin wanted to support The Nature Conservancy's efforts by providing the indigenous people of the Central Peruvian Amazon, the Yanesha, with a visible way to make a living, using sustainably harvested resources. So, in 2001, he formed a new nonprofit to realize his vision -- PaTS, which means "Mother Earth" in Yanesha, and is also an acronym for its mission: Partnerships and Technology for Sustainability. Through its "Sustainability Makes Cents Project," PaTS trains, finances and helps the Yanesha people design and manufacture products that are sold and distributed in the U.S. by South Cone.

The Financials
Economically, South Cone has contributed "many millions" to Peru and Argentina. [Exact figures are not available.] Environmentally, South Cone has saved nearly 60 mature trees per year from deforestation.

"It's hard to tell the exact number of trees," Cooklin reported to GoodBiz113. "But we have consumed approximately 400,000 board feet of certified wood per year for the past four years. The average mature tree species we work with provides around 7,000 board feet of finished lumber. That would mean 57 mature trees per year."

The Upshot
Suffice to say, conventional furniture manufacturers are typically far less selective about the wood they use -- and the manner in which it's harvested. Why invest so much time and energy in forging partnerships on another continent in order to source wood at premium prices? "We believe in the need for sustainable development in all industries," Cooklin replied. "The furniture business, in particular, has more influence over sustainable practices' success, because it adds the most value to the resource.

"At South Cone, we have an underlying philosophy of sustainability...40% of our lumber purchases continue to be certified wood because of our unwavering commitment to the environment."

Make no mistake: Earning that coveted FSC certification -- including logo use on products, marketing materials, etc. -- is a real coup for companies. "An FSC-certified piece is guaranteed, through independent third-party certification, to have come from a well-managed forest," explained Katie Miller, communications director of FSC-US, which has certified just more than 50 U.S. furniture manufacturers and distributors.

"The FSC standards are supported by the world's most prominent environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, etc.," Miller noted. "In furniture without the FSC label, you just don't know where that wood came from and how the forest was managed. Were animal habitats harmed? Were civil rights violated? Were the logs even taken legally?"

Despite the logistics, rigorous certification process, etc., an increasing number of furniture makers are gradually climbing aboard the sustainability bandwagon -- both to meet consumer demand and to do the right thing for the planet. "Corporate social and environmental responsibility is certainly on the rise," said Miller. "As forest products of all sorts embrace those concepts, they often arrive at FSC as the tool to help them ensure they are doing business responsibly in terms of their effects on forest management. I hope this trend continues."

The Takeaway
Given his far-reaching success as a businessman and activist, is there anything Cooklin would do differently? "Many things," came his candid response. "It is hard to differentiate where the hurdles along the way are -- due to market or business challenges, or to resistance to sustainable practices in the culture at large.

"It's been hard to be the pioneer, because there's little opportunity to find synergies that were not being demanded by the market...We haven't leveraged from relationships with others as much as we would have liked, because of the challenges of running a business on two continents...We also invested more of our own time, energy and resources than perhaps was healthy for the bottom line of the business, because we are so committed to the cause."

To other would-be entrepreneurs and small-business owners seeking to form their own sustainable enterprises, Cooklin advises, "Form strategic alliances, join the Sustainable Furniture Council [if you're into furniture], and take advantage of a wider body of proven experience."

Glimpsing the trail behind and then ahead, Cooklin expresses both gratitude and a warning shot. "I'm jazzed that I can be part of a very complex and difficult solution. It will take the coordinated effort of many visionaries to secure the success of this enormous task...

"Most people think that there is much time left to do something about the imminent disaster that planet Earth is headed towards. My belief is that environmental problems are already a reality that will directly affect our lives in an exponential way in the immediate future."

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