Behind the Label: West Elm Green

West Elm loves stamping their products “green,” but what exactly does that mean?

Brooklyn-based home decor store West Elm caters to urban design lovers with its aspirational blend of minimalist furnishings, global influences, and sustainable practices. Indie artist collaborations and eco-friendly materials play a large role in West Elm’s marketing, with the chain proclaiming that it aims to “get a little greener every day.” But what exactly does that entail? In this week’s Behind the Label, we take a look at West Elm’s sustainability practices – at least those that are visible to the public.

Launched in 2002 by the Williams-Sonoma group – which also owns Pottery Barn and Rejuvenation – West Elm is a relatively recent addition to the home furnishings scene. But with a popular mail-order catalog, strong online presence, and 40 retail locations in cities like Seattle, Austin, Denver, and New York, West Elm has quickly become a go-to destination for decorators who want a step up from IKEA but can’t yet afford high-end contemporary design.

West Elm has been particularly successful at securing great partnerships. Its ongoing collaboration with Aid to Artisans has yielded fair trade papier-mache sculptures from Haiti, handspun silk pillow covers from India, and found handmade rugs from Morocco, while its alliance with the 20×200 gallery makes framed artwork from emerging artists available at affordable prices.

West Elm also maintains close ties with its Brooklyn roots, working with DUMBO neighbor Etsy to highlight handmade products, collaborating with the Pratt Institute on lines of eco-friendly furniture, and featuring curations from BK-based design blogger Grace Bonney of Design*Sponge.

The Good

In addition to partnerships that support independent and local designers, West Elm also highlights the ecology of its products. Throughout its online catalog, you’ll find items stamped “Green” indicating that the item is either sustainable, organic, or made from FSC-certified wood or paper. Many of the “Green” items that aren’t FSC-certified are made from reclaimed or rapidly renewable materials, like jute, bamboo, hemp, bankuan, and abaca. Much of the remaining furniture is constructed from engineered wood – a composite material manufactured from a mix of wood particles and adhesives, such as plywood. Often, engineered wood is cheaper to manufacture and easier to fashion, and some would call it more sustainable than solid wood since it makes more efficient use of the wood particles.

The Bad

While West Elm’s heavy use of engineered wood may be better for forests, it can sometimes result in quality that is hit-or-miss – and furniture that falls apart after a few months certainly can’t be called sustainable. A few years ago, popular blog Apartment Therapy published a rant from a West Elm customer who claimed that her new bedframe broke after just two months of use, and that several of her friends had experienced the same issue.

Sure enough, the wooden slats under the mattress had caved in and were no longer supporting the mattress. Horrified, I looked under the slats and found, much to my disappointment, the middle piece which is the ultimate support system of the bed, was completely bent and in a word: useless.

The post kickstarted more than 150 comments echoing issues of poor quality, lousy customer support, and frustrating return and warranty policies. Granted, such incidents are often isolated, but quality does seem to be a recurring sore point among West Elm customers who choose to be loud about it on the Internet.

The Questionable

Apart from such quality issues, West Elm’s record is relatively clean, and the Williams-Sonoma group hasn’t been the subject of any major scandals in recent years.

That said, I can’t help being bothered by the lack of substantive information about sustainability and corporate social responsibility on West Elm’s corporate website. Very little is showcased about West Elm’s product supply chains, and apart from the sustainable capsule collections, it’s difficult to find a country of origin for the majority of items (most are labeled “imported”).

It seems that West Elm is doing great work by offering great design at decent price points with what we assume are eco-friendly practices. But it’s not enough to just stamp a product “Green” without showing customers why. I want to read, watch, and hear more about what exactly West Elm is doing to become more sustainable.


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Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.