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Green Challenge Showcase: SWIFT (Sample Waste Initiative for the Furniture and Textile Industries)

| Thursday October 23rd, 2008 | 3 Comments

Net Impact, a group of future and current leaders who use business to create positive change invited student and professional members to compete in the annual Net Impact Green Challenge. The task: to use their business skills to reduce their organization’s environmental footprint. Sue Patrolia helped create a “SWIFT: Sample Waste Initiative for the Furniture and Textile industries”. Here is her story:
I remember clearly the day in November 2007 that I started SWIFT (Sample Waste Initiative for the Furniture and Textile Industries). It was the day I picked up the phone and called the fabric editor of Furniture Today to ask if anyone else was concerned about all the sample and fabric waste we were dumping into landfills.


But the story of what finally led me to action began on Jan 4, 2006 when my sister-in law was killed climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with my brother and their three kids. Every account points to changing climate and lack of snow/ice on the mountain as the reason for the tremendous onslaught of rocks and boulders that came raining down on them. This followed an unprecedented year of natural disasters including the earthquake and tsunami in Asia, the hurricanes in central and north America, notably Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan and India. More that 88,000 people died as a result of natural disasters that year. I felt in my bones that it was soon going to get personal and unfortunately, it really hit home.
For eight years I have worked as a Product Manager for a fabric company and have been watching the waste flow through my hands to the landfills. (I have very conservatively estimated the nationwide amount of discarded sample waste at 100 tons per year.) While I tried offering it to schools, the ASPCA, and other charitable organizations, it wasn’t until I enrolled in the MBA program for Organizational and Environmental Sustainability at Antioch NE that I felt the power to effect real change. The supportive and motivating community at school gave me the passion and the drive to stand up and ask the question.
So, that day in November, I made a phone call, a name for my new project project, some buttons, and some connections. Susan Andrews, the editor I contacted, was enormously helpful in getting the word out. I spent countless hours researching, contacting companies and people, and finding organizations that might be able to help. The support of the Sustainable Furniture Council buoyed my hopes and sustained my efforts.
I traveled to the furniture market in Las Vegas and spoke at a furniture market in High Point, North Carolina. I talked with many fabric and furniture companies who were mostly interested, but really needed a plan – which I didn’t have. I was losing steam when one day Joe Stalnaker from Avangard Industries (one of my stalking victims) jumped in and offered to find some warehouse space and donated trucking. We re-contacted Quilts for Kids, Inc who makes quilts, bed bags and wheelchair bags for children in need. The president, Linda Ayre, started her organization because of all the waste she saw in the interior design business. Her organization would welcome the sample and fabric waste. In July we started a program that will take 10 tons of fabric out of the waste stream this year.
While I am thrilled that we are able to take some of the fabric out of the waste stream, my goal remains to reduce the amount that goes into that stream. SWIFT has some tough obstacles to hurdle including the need for fabric selectors to see, touch and feel the fabric and the industry’s strong resistance to change. The fabric manufacturers are also hesitant to move in that direction because they believe that the more samples they send to selectors, the better the chances of getting an order. I have been heavily promoting the use of digital samples, with small fabric swatches attached, but I realize a mindset change is the key. When I can help the industries I am involved with understand that they are part of the problem and can be part of the solution, I will have made a great stride.
One of the wonderful unexpected benefits of this project is the connections I have made in the flurry of initial research as well as throughout the ongoing process. It is truly amazing how many people and organizations are out there working in their own realm toward sustainability. It is every one of these connections we make that helps form the chain of change. I am so excited to be a part of the transformation and indebted to organizations like Net Impact and TriplePundit for finding ways to keep us all connected.


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  • Ed Delhagen

    Congratulations on your initiative. Like most areas in need of “change,” the fabric world will yield when the right set of motivations shows up. Sometimes this comes from within the industry, often from outside, best when both appear together.
    I worked with furniture makers for ~8 years to encourage use of certified wood in their products. There was considerable resistance to change. However, once a few leaders from the industry began to speak up–the early adopters who were both mavens and sales people–others began to pay attention.
    The major force for change came from an effort to organize the furniture buyers. We worked with this group to find out what they needed, how they specified products, then worked through multiple variations to discover ways to meet their needs and address their fears. The end results were both greater comfort and recognition that they were part of the problem but more important, they were key to the solution. It takes time for people to leave their old patterns behind and courage to break from the pack.
    For people who work in hierarchies where someone else “makes the decisions” it takes even more time to help change makers find their wings. But somewhere within the sector you are working with there is a small set of players who can demonstrate the change you give voice to. Network change patterns tend to follow the same pathway: start small, build success, find mavens-connectors-salespeople, and keep trying. Build in feedback loops, including people who continue to say “It will never happen.” Often these individuals are the best weathervanes.
    The role of the network weaver is essential: there are always people with a need and desire who cannot find one another. It takes a lot of effort to find the right people. Network weavers make these essential connections.
    Keep up your excellent work. There is a way to crack the nut.

  • Lauren

    I read an article in the Houston Chronicle that featured SWIFT and I was so excited to see they are Houston based. I would love to donate fabric to this cause but not sure whom to contact. My name and email are listed below.

    • Sue Patrolia

      Hi Lauren,
      You can contact Joe Stalnaker at jstalnaker@avaicg.com to find out more details.
      Swift is moving forward working with manufacturers to reduce the upstream sample waste, but we are having trouble finding outlets for reuse. I have tried national retailers like Michaels (hoping to collaborate on teaching people to use it or selling it with net profits to charity) without success. I also tried 10,000 Villages hoping they might consider using their business model in the US, but again without success.
      If anyone has any ideas please feel free to contact me.
      Thanks,
      Sue Patrolia