It’s Time to Consider Operating a ‘Green’ Shop

There’s a lot of talk across the country, and indeed the world, about building greener.

However, as the old Yorkshire saying goes, “When all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done.”

The time for going green is here, now, and your shop can do its part. You don’t have to talk about it too much, you just have to do it.

There are three main areas you could focus on:

  1. Being aware of the materials you use.
  2. Generating less waste.
  3. Building work that lasts.

Treading lighter on the planet starts with you and your employees – it’ll be a new commitment to do things differently. It was only a few years ago that we didn’t recycle newspapers; now most communities have that set up. Look at how much paper product is made from re-used materials these days. There’s no reason we can’t bring some fresh thinking into how we build and fabricate things.

Are you willing to make some changes? Think about your grandkids, and how they’ll feel about you and your work – they may see some of the things you’ve built after you’re long gone. It would be nice if the things you build outlast you. It would be nice if a future generation could look at your projects and see how well you saved resources, used better materials and built things to last.

And how about your customers? Are the times really right to be offering products that are environmentally better? I can tell you this: For many people, especially the more affluent and educated crowd (the ones often buying our products), if they can buy something that’s greener, it’s way more attractive to them – especially if the cost is the same or only slightly higher. Look at the huge growth of organic foods. They’re usually better, and often cost more than the regular stuff.

How can anyone with an ounce of intelligence not believe that greener is usually better for the planet? And why are the big box stores embracing greener products? It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s because green sells.

Green Material

Start with the solid wood you use. More and more lumber suppliers are getting their materials from well-managed sources. This may mean you can buy wood from your supplier that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC – www.fsc.org), and the cost of this material is finally coming down. You may pay a slight premium, but you may be able to pass that along to your clients – especially if you present it as an upgrade.

Most customers will know in their heart that buying green is a good thing. They can tell their friends that the mahogany used to make their new kitchen did not come down from a clear-cut Amazonian tract of land, but from a carefully managed forest program in Guatemala. And your customers’ kids will approve heartily.

You may want to consider getting your operation to be certified as a green shop. This involves a certain degree of paperwork, procedures and systems, but it may be worthwhile if you think it’s a good thing – and if your employees will buy into it. Someone will have to pay for it – that will be your customers eventually – so think hard before you go down the certified road.

The plywoods and particleboards we all use are gradually getting better, too. At our own shop, we’ve changed over to formaldehyde-free cores, at virtually the same price point as the regular materials. They’re better for the air our employees breathe, and our customers recognize that we’re doing our part.

Unfortunately, environmentally questionable materials such as PVC are used extensively in our industry. With a lack of proven alternatives, it’s tough to make major changes yet. New and better materials for edgebanding are around the corner, though. Watch for their arrival.

Use veneer when you can – it’s a more economical use of wood, and looks great. After all, Chippendale furniture contains lots of veneer. These days we’re finding that, in many cases, the higher quality and rarer woods are only available as veneers.
Consider your finishing department from an environmental viewpoint. Use an approved booth and make sure you minimize any release into the outside air.

You may want to take a hard look at water-based products. The Europeans have been making some huge advances on that front over the last few years. The by-products of some of these finishes are often gentler on the environment.

Waste

A huge part of leading lighter lives is being aware of all the waste we generate. Much has been said about “throwing away” things – there’s really no “away.” Most of our waste and garbage just ends up in landfills or in the atmosphere. So as shops, let’s play our part here.

A good computer optimizing plan can help minimize waste as you cut parts. So can careful preparation and thinking about how you approach the work. Maybe your long rips of “scrap” can become skids, nailers or even kicks.

The bigger shops grind up their waste, but maybe you can take that material and put it to use. If you can’t figure out what to do with it in your own operation, maybe you can give it away. Is there a local high school that still runs a woodshop program in your area? A vocational school that can use it?

Maybe you can have a garage sale once a year to clean your bits and pieces out. You’d be surprised at how many homeowners would love to have those 10" rips of walnut plywood that have been taking up space in your shop. Stick an ad on craigslist.com if needed. Give it your employees – they’ll re-use it. Just keep it out of the dumpster!

Lastly, for your workers’ sake, be aware of the dust you generate. Part of becoming greener is to create a safe, non-toxic environment to work in. Good dust collection is essential, and sending your waste/dust up into the air is not the way to go.

Built to Last

For many people, building products that last may be the greenest thing of all. Sometimes it seems we’re living in a world that’s meant to last 10 minutes. Everything’s “disposable,” from our coffee cups to our cars. Some of the houses we live in need to be replaced after 20 years.

Why don’t we try to build things that will last longer? Cabinets that last not 10 years, but 50 – longer than our customers own them. Let’s start building things that outlive the person who built them.

That may be the reason many of us got into the business at the start. We wanted to make some nice, durable things. Well, the nicest things last the longest time, so let’s make that part of what we do and who we are.

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