In this time of abundant greenwashing, it’s refreshing to find a company that’s far more sustainable than it claims to be in its advertisements. La Lune Collection, a Milwaukee furniture maker, impressed me last week not only by its strong grasp of sustainable principles, but by the matter of fact attitude with which it approaches sustainability. In business for more than 30 years, La Lune makes high end, rustic styled furniture for hotels, restaurants, and interior design firms that are made primarily from nearby poplar and willow trees – all in a rehabbed old factory in an urban neighborhood it helped revive.
The sustainability catch? For starters, fast-growing poplar and willow are as common as weeds in Wisconsin and need to be regularly pruned – a costly annual project. La Lune happily collects an assortment of trunks and branches from property owners who are thrilled to see them go. From a business perspective, this means an essentially free source of materials, and from a sustainability perspective, the company is harvesting a very renewable resource that might even go to waste otherwise.
La Lune founder Mario Costantini was kind enough to show me around the factory just before Christmas as holiday production was winding down. He and his wife Cathy started the business in 1978 just after college, after spending time tinkering with willow to figure out how to bend it, shape it, and preserve the bark to maintain a rustic look. Once the technique was mastered, the wood could be used to make a wide variety of chairs, seats, cabinets and so on and a company was born. When the Costantini’s designs were noticed approvingly by Chicago designers, the niche line became firmly established and continued to grow over the years.
Later on, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources got in touch with the Costantinis about finding a use for the overabundant poplar trees on state land. And after another round of experimentation, poplar joined willow as a free material source for the company.
The Social Component
In 1986 the company purchased an abandoned contractor’s facility in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood – at that time a troubled area. Rehabbing the old structure was a great move in terms of resource conservation, a celebration of historical aesthetic, and a general investment in the city. But the neighborhood had a gang problem – mostly for petty crimes of the sort kids get into, but occasional more serious incidents were already driving other businesses from the area and making some question the company’s common sense.
Mario quickly realized that it was idle kids without any structure in their lives who were at the root of most of the area’s problems and proposed to open a youth center with other business owners and the help of the YMCA and other local non-profits. To do it right, he went so far as to meet directly with gang leaders to essentially ask for their blessing while the center was conceived.
It may sound like a strange sort of stakeholder engagement, but the strategy paid off and the center opened in 1989 serving mostly former and current gang members and noticeably improving the area’s crime problems, not to mention the lives of countless neighborhood youth. Sadly, the center has temporarily closed due to funding issues, though Mario contends he still spends almost half his time working on the center and other related programs. Today, Riverwest is one of the city’s trendier areas – full of small and large businesses, many of which have a vocal ‘green’ or cultural component. La Lune even rents an outbuilding to a local opera company as rehearsal space – music to the ears of the Constantinis, who are enthusiastic fans.
Finally, I asked Mario how big a role ‘green’ has in his marketing and identity. To him, the ethos of thrifty re-use on which the company was founded was more common sense than anything else: why be wasteful? His furniture is a luxury item owned by fancy restaurants and celebrities; quality and style are still the main drivers. The notion of eco-responsibility has always been present, but only recently has it climbed up the ladder of priorities customers ask for. Not that it would change the way the Costantinis run the place – certainly the ‘greenest’ furniture facility I’ve seen this side of Amish country, if not anywhere else.
Cathy and Mario will be honored next April as Marquette University’s Entrepreneurs of the Year.