After three years of declining sales, the North American office furniture industry is recovering its footing.
Industry forecasts anticipate production of $10.6 billion worth of office furniture in the United States this year, up 6.6 percent from 2005, and the first time North American production is expected to top $10 billion since 2001.
Herman Miller Inc. has seen its sales climb by 19.8 percent through the first six months of its 2005-06 fiscal year, which ends May 28.
The Zeeland, Mich.-based company also has set a goal of doubling its business by 2010. It posted $1.5 billion in sales for its last fiscal year.
``The economic environment has stabilized,'' Chief Executive Officer Brian Walker noted in a Dec. 23 conference call.
The firm also will launch two new product lines this year.
But as furniture makers look toward an expected boost in sales and production for 2006, they also are responding to increased demands to make those new products in environmentally friendly ways.
For their suppliers, that means not only being prepared for expected production demands, but also knowing how to provide customers with a variety of materials that will meet their demands.
For example, giants like Steelcase Inc. and Herman Miller have announced plans to move away from PVC.
``It's been a major focus of late,'' said Tom Reardon, executive director of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association. ``The commercial furniture industry is closely linked to building and construction trends, and architects and interior designers are embracing green building concepts.
``It's been a whole evolution in thought about what we're doing.''
In June, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase announced its plans to be PVC-free by 2012, beginning by eliminating the material from the extruded edge bands on its furniture.
Herman Miller also has announced plans to drop the material from its products, although it has not set a specific date.
The furniture makers' customers want alternatives, Reardon said, and the industry must respond.
``There were probably some people who thought that early on this was a fad, a flash in the pan,'' he said. ``We have a very savvy and informed customer base. They know what questions to ask and they know the answers that are required.''
Plastics are not the only materials undergoing environmental reviews. Furniture manufacturers want assurances that wood comes from managed forests, that painted parts go through regulated emissions tests and that even textiles come from eco-friendly sources.
Herman Miller has put an increased emphasis into designing parts that are easy to disassemble and recycle at the end of their life.
``For the most part, furniture makers are increasingly dependant on their supply chains,'' Reardon said. ``Those companies can't do things that are going to reflect badly on their customers.''