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Talking Sustainability With Vermont's Copeland Furniture

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Sustainable Furniture Company - Copeland Furniture

Copeland's Essentials Collection features wood recovered from other Copeland furniture designs.

In business since the 1970s, Copeland Furniture designs and builds a range of American-made modern furniture distinct for its elegant forms and superior craftsmanship. The Vermont-based company has made sustainability an intrinsic part of its design ethos, maintaining a modest carbon footprint by, among other things, sourcing only North American hardwood timbers within a 500 mile radius of its manufacturing facility, and staying focused on clean, classic designs that transcend fashion and trends—and last generations. Recently, we talked to Copeland about the company's abiding commitment to sustainability, and why eco consciousness and conservation continues to be the lifeblood of Copeland Furniture.  

You define yourselves as an eco-conscious company. Tell us why that's important to you.

We come from a part of the country, rural Vermont, where there is a longstanding culture of conservation and sustainability. For one, Vermont is a place of great natural beauty, where the effects of pollution have, at times, been a discernible blight on the landscape. I personally grew up in a period when acid rain deforestation made for highly visible scars on the mountaintops. But moreover, Vermont is a place where parcels of land have generally stayed within local families for generations, fostering an ethic of responsibility, legacy, and stewardship. This is the culture we come from and, frankly, couldn’t see ourselves any other way.

Making your products locally is one aspect of sustainability. Is there anything else about manufacturing in America that makes it easier to be eco-conscious?

Well, the fact that our products are made in America, of American hardwoods, predominantly for the American market, already implies a lower carbon footprint and lower rates of atmospheric pollution simply based on the shorter supply chains. That said, the United States also has much stricter environmental regulations than the countries where most furniture is manufactured and, Vermont, in particular, has some of the strictest environmental regulations in the United States. Where we’re located it’s virtually impossible not to be a “green” company.

But an often overlooked aspect to this questions is quality. The American furniture manufacturing industry can be largely understood as a competition between peers to see who can build the highest quality product. Overseas imports are more often price oriented and not designed to last. “Heirloom quality” is the brag you typically to hear American manufacturers make of their products. “A lot of look for the money” is what you hear about imports. What they don’t say is that the low-quality import will be replaced five or more times in the life of an heirloom quality piece, which dramatically increases the total environmental footprint of the product.

Copeland sources wood within a 500-mile radius of the factory, which keeps transportation costs down, along with fossil fuel emissions. Are there other things about using locally sourced wood that helps your sustainability mission, beyond these two advantages?

Absolutely. Responsible stewardship in Northern Forest lands is virtually universal. Hardwoods harvested in these states are generally considered ‘low risk’ in all of the Forest Stewardship Council’s controlled wood risk categories. We avoid speaking in absolutes as there is always the possibility of an individual bad-actor but, as a rule, hardwood lumber grown in the United States is about the best assurance of sustainable forestry you can buy.

Also, consider that your solid wood furniture is essentially made of sequestered atmospheric carbon. Where the product is made of sustainably harvested wood, you have the additional assurance that the trees were replanted and are sequestering carbon at a faster rate than the mature trees they replaced.

Copeland Furniture locally sourced woods

Locally sourced wood in Copeland's Vermont factory

Copeland Furniture Factory

Hand-applied workmanship, a Copeland trademark

Copeland Farm Table

Copeland's Essentail Farm Table and Farm Bench

The Essentials collection is made from recovered wood from other products. How did the idea of turning wood scraps into beautiful furniture come about?

In the production of our main line, we make use of board lengths - called “blanks” - from 18” to around 90” and dozens of sizes in between. To achieve this assortment, we buy rough-cut lumber, plain and process that wood to remove defects then cut it into the various blanks we use for production. After this process, we are left with large quantities of “shorts” (less than 18”) and other lengths which have more character than we allow in our main line.

This is good, viable, high-dollar hardwood – some of which was used to heat our factory in the winter but far too much has been historically discarded due to lack of an appropriate use. This has always sat poorly with us, but making use of that material required the investment of some very large, specialized equipment and significant floor space to house both it and the large quantities of lumber we would be reclaiming. In 2014, the purchase of an empty, adjacent factory building finally gave us that space and we have been producing furniture made of reclaimed, finger-joined hardwood shorts since.

Copeland Furniture factory in Vermont

Copeland's rural Vermont factory and adjacent solar power panels.