Like so many environmentally-conscious citizens, Emily Kroll worries about conspicuous consumption and its effect on the planet. "I do as much as I can to not have that great an impact and try my best to educate others," says Kroll. But she’s done much more than just recycling and composting food scraps. As founder of the sustainable furniture company EKLA Home, Kroll’s taking on a toxic giant—the poisoning of indoor air due to volatile organic compounds (VOCs commonly found in wood stains and paints)—and winning.
EKLA Home is considered the cleanest sustainable furniture manufacturer in the country. The business grew by two hundred percent last year and counts among its clients Starbucks, Sony Music, MTV and Razorfish, all clamoring to green their spaces (and get LEED credits, too). In this Q&A, Emily Kroll talks about the importance of sustainable design, craftsmanship, bootstrapping, and the power of believing in yourself.
How did you get started in the furniture industry?
My grandfather was a furniture designer and had a company in New York City at the turn of the century and my mother’s parents were in scrap metal recycling and architectural reclamation. My grandparents had a house in England made and furnished entirely of found objects: blankets from British rail cars, kitchen equipment from restaurants, ship rails from SS Mauritania, floorboards from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and bathroom fixtures from the Mayfair Hotel. I grew up around that kind of consciousness. After college I went to work for some guys who did reproductions and eventually opened my own store. That’s when I discovered furniture manufacturing was responsible for raping 2/3 of the world’s forests.
Did you have a sense that the industry was moving toward a sustainable zeitgeist?
I started working with sustainable wood in the 1990s when alder was a still a waste crop and began with building case goods with it. But being on the West Coast there is a certain energy that promotes discussion of sustainable ideas. For me it was a two-fold dialogue. There was the issue of the industry changing when the Chinese started importing for 1/10th of the price. I wondered how I going to keep making a living and doing what I love and not be wiped out by serious competition. One way was by focusing on local production and materials against what Chinese were doing.
When I saw Al Gore do his inconvenient truth presentation (before the movie came out) talking about we about how we all ll had to do what we could in our own industries, I knew I needed to keep going further. That is when I started research to develop non-toxic upholstery. My philosophy is about taking each ingredient and making it sustainable.
Were you able to tap into the growing interest (and funding) for green business?
A few venture capitalists told me EKLA Home was considered a vanity project because it is not part of the green energy/tech movement. Home furnishings were in the top grossing industries of the US economy in the nineties and the first seven years of this decade so I was confused and disappointed.
At this point the dollar was weak and the euro was strong so I figured a better tactic would be to seek investment from European angels. A Swedish investor guaranteed my entire capitalization.
I received my first installment in December 2007 as the market was sliding. My investor ended up losing his fortune in the market crash and could not provide the remainder of the funds committed. I ended up having to launch my company on a quarter of my original angel funds, and $25,000 dollars in SBA guaranteed loans.
In the two years since, I have used credit cards, and my initial funding to bootstrap this baby into a viable business.
How does the market reflect what you design?
What we formerly perceived to be organic had a hippie-crunchy aesthetic. I am trying to be aware of what is on trend design-wise and translate that into products that are relevant to the fashion of furniture, but also creating classic pieces that never go out of style. I tap every period for an eclectic aesthetic where nothing is truly literal because I am mixing eras. The sectional is a trend now though because of the idea of the family lounge as a revolt against technology and information. You just want to nest out and it fits everyone comfortably.
How do you define innovation in this industry?
I think the innovation is how to compete against mass production and keep a crafts business alive in this landscape. I am constantly working to tweak every system to be streamlined from transporting and receiving raw materials in the least impactful way to eliminating waste in procurement. We are entirely paperless, and our team works from home. With all that we are beating the industry standard of 8-12 weeks of production. We bumped it to two weeks. That’s turning profits faster, too.
Where do you go from here?
The only way to grow this thing is to develop some educational tools and products that I can get out virally. I think there is a buzz about toxins indoors but the awareness isn’t there yet. I believe I have to be intimately involved in waking people up. Sales are important but the only way to have this thing reach a tipping point is education. It all comes down to sleeping better at night. If I can change one household with a newborn who is not exposed to toxic stuff, I’ve done my part.
This interview is part of a series about the paths that innovators took to get where they are today. See more Innovation Agents.