The long haul: For one wholesaler, distributing green products took careful cultivation

Pictured is a “Plyboo” display—FSC-certified flooring and plywood by the manufacturer Smith & Fong—at the EarthSource/Plywood and Lumber Sales Inc. store in Oakland, Calif

Getting environmentally friendly products to market can be an unfriendly challenge. To ride the crest of the green building wave requires long-term relationships with foreign suppliers, according to one wholesaler.

Few know the value of those relationships better than EarthSource Forest Products, a West Coast wholesale distributor that has been in the sustainable building products business for more than 20 years.

The retailer was founded by Jeff Hunt in 1983, who at this writing was in Southeast Asia to acquire further exotic and sustainable woods for the store. The store now is co-owned by Hunt and his wife, Marion.

Capitalizing on the trend toward green building across the country, EarthSource recently opened the “Urban Jungle,” a 2,200-square-foot showroom featuring exotic flooring, outdoor furniture, decking, wallpanels, cabinets and millwork.

Having been with the green building products market for the better part of two decades has positioned EarthSource well as the trend takes off. The company has taken care to develop longstanding relationships with foreign suppliers.

“I’d be lying if I said that for the first five or six years it wasn’t a struggle, because it was,” said Larry Percivalle, sales manager for the wholesaler. “Now it’s starting to pay off.”

EarthSource Forest Product s got its start under the name Plywood and Lumber Sales in 1983, well before any trend toward sustainable building materials had taken off. Located in the eco-friendly San Francisco Bay area, Plywood and Lumber Sales grew into EarthSource in 1996. Still, the wholesaler faced obstacles in taking environmentally friendly flooring materials, walls and plywood to the mainstream. One of the initial challenges was offering a comprehensive selection of finishes, particularly in plywood products.

“The only thing we could get in plywood was cherry or maple,” he said. “We used to joke that ‘you can have any FSC-certified wood finish you want, as long as it’s cherry or maple.’”

The Forest Stewardship Council eventually made a change, allowing plywoods to be certified if they were more than 70 percent FSC-certified, as opposed to an older requirement of 100 percent.

EarthSource also faced a difficult task on the distribution side—much of the exotic hardwoods used by the wholesaler, for example, are produced in Central America. In the early days, many of those suppliers didn’t have a grasp of the expectations of the American marketplace, Percivalle said, making it difficult to keep a consistent flow of quality products into showrooms. In addition, business practices and market knowledge varied widely from Central American city to city and supplier to supplier—let alone from country to country.

“The business climate is just completely different down there,” he said. “For instance, when we first started doing this in 1998, [suppliers had] very few dry kilns to dry the wood. There were challenges on quality issues and on creating a consistent level of expectations.”

It took time and effort, as well as help from outside groups such as the Rainforest Alliance, to get suppliers to uniformly adopt the various grading rules and standards required for the American marketplace, Percivalle said. That included providing some suppliers with vital resources, such as dry kilns, he said.

To cultivate those relationships, EarthSource “just stuck with them through it [and] provided consistent income,” Percivalle said. EarthSource has emerged with a more mature and developed distribution chain for the effort, just in time for the green building trend to take off.

“Because the program (in Central America, particularly Guatemala) has been so successful, the other thing that we were able to do was create markets for secondary or lesser known woods,” he said. One example has been Guatemalan Machichewood, which has caught on through EarthSource’s showrooms with architects and designers, to whom EarthSource provides a variety of informational resources on lesser known wood species.

“We’ve had success using [Machiche] in everything from flooring, decking, outdoor furniture—it’s very versatile,” Percivalle said.

Other more well-known woods, like Honduran Mahogany, Spanish cedar, Yucatan Chechen and Granadino, draw in professionals by name alone. EarthSource further capitalizes on “salvaged woods”—woods that have been submerged in rivers, primarily in Southeast Asian locations like Thailand.

There are other geographical considerations in developing a sustainable sales base for green woods, Percivalle noted.

“Being in the Bay Area, we’re somewhat unique, as there’s a heightened environmental awareness here. Our customers are interested in where we source our wood—is it FSC-certified?” he said. “If not, they want to know ‘Is it salvaged?’ This is especially true in the architect and design community.”

Still, it’s not merely the professionals who are interested in green building products, as had been the case in years past.

“It’s starting to resonate with consumers here,” he said. “There have been a lot of reasons for this in the last four years: the development of the LEED program, national programs, statewide programs. It’s really gaining a lot of traction among consumers as well as among the pros.”

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