“Five Strategies Our Company Is Using To Become More Sustainable” With Penny Bauder & Whitney Frances Falk

It is our mission to educate our audience on the importance of utilizing well-made & long-lasting design, as well as to provide these very works in a convenient and practical way to our audience. At ZZ, all of our pieces have a minimum viable lifespan of 50 years or more. Through doing so, we are elevating the […]

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It is our mission to educate our audience on the importance of utilizing well-made & long-lasting design, as well as to provide these very works in a convenient and practical way to our audience. At ZZ, all of our pieces have a minimum viable lifespan of 50 years or more. Through doing so, we are elevating the standards and raising the bar for furniture retailers and ultimately furniture consumption globally. We are returning to the norm of furniture retailers that our previous generations bought from: offering lifetime warranties for the works we sell.

Aspart of my series about companies who are helping to battle climate change, I had the pleasure of interviewing Whitney Frances Falk.

Whitney Frances Falk is the Founder and CEO of ZZ Driggs, a company reimagining how we furnish our lives for a new economy and a more sustainable future. ZZ is the first of its kind, featuring acclaimed contemporary and collectible furniture for rent or purchase, created by independent emerging design studios across New York, Los Angeles, and more. Prior to creating ZZ, Whitney rose the ranks on Wall Street — all with a self-taught education of the financial markets — starting out as administrative assistant and eventually becoming vice president in institutional equity research sales studying the world’s largest furniture retailers and manufacturers at the global investment bank Jefferies in their New York headquarters. Her knowledge of the industry, and its nefarious and desecrating tactics, ultimately led to her creation of ZZ Driggs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

ZZ Driggs came to life through a passion and a past life. The passion was a long standing reverence for furniture and design, and the past life being my former career working my way up the ranks of proverbial Wall Street and studying global furniture retailers and manufacturers. In my work understanding the economics of a lot of these companies, I discovered that the majority of furniture being produced today was intentionally built to last only a few years on average — a planned obsolescence, in a sense. This was effected so that the respective company could estimate financially when the customer would repeat these purchases (increasing Lifetime Value), and in turn it would ultimately support the company’s balance sheets and shareholder value.

This was all astounding to me. I remembered heirloom treasures — the coveted hand-me-downs of furniture from relatives and antiques that were like silent members of your family, just as storied and just as beloved. Moreover, there was a burgeoning design scene in Brooklyn, Downtown LA, Oakland, etc. where emerging designers were creating furniture to last a lifetime or more. All in all, furniture from my memory was at its core a vastly sustainable practice of use and reuse, of care and researched restoration, and what I was witnessing with some of these behemoth companies was a wasteful — and ultimately desecrating — practice for both people and planet.

Meanwhile, a number of years ago I took on some side work helping friends with creating space in their own apartments or growing companies. Time after time, friends of clients of mine would ask “Whit, I’d love to graduate from Ikea or West Elm, but I don’t know what the size of my next apartment will be, or even where I’ll be living a year from now, so why would I invest in something I have to keep forever?” I get it. We all do. Of course no one wants to spend a ton if they may in fact be rid of something in just a year’s time. And yet we have so many incredible furniture designers in our cities’ backyards. This was ultimately the lightbulb “genesis moment” where it became apparent to me that we needed to create a platform that bridged the gap between ethical, independent, emerging design, and the customer’s need for flexibility, inspiration, truly sustainable furnishings, and convenience. And from there, we created ZZ to do just that.

What is the mission of your company? What problems are you aiming to solve?

We built ZZ Driggs in order to make high quality and sustainable design more accessible and convenient for everyone. One of our taglines reads, “Making Design More Democratic and Deliberate.” With that, customers can create the space they dream of without compromising quality and making a long-term & expensive commitment that is normally expected in purchasing high-quality furniture and design.

As described, traditional furniture buying is expensive and inflexible. Most people save for months or longer in order to afford high quality and sustainable furniture, or they settle for pieces cheaply made because they need something quick. If you move, often the pieces you love don’t fit in your new space, and selling or disposing of furniture is a costly, time-consuming, and often a wasteful problem.

It is our mission to educate our audience on the importance of utilizing well-made & long-lasting design, as well as to provide these very works in a convenient and practical way to our audience. At ZZ, all of our pieces have a minimum viable lifespan of 50 years or more. Through doing so, we are elevating the standards and raising the bar for furniture retailers and ultimately furniture consumption globally. We are returning to the norm of furniture retailers that our previous generations bought from: offering lifetime warranties for the works we sell. At ZZ, we truly believe that furniture — when made well — is the most sustainable product on our planet, and more retailers and consumers alike need to be reminded of this fact. It is the very reason why antiques exist and we are hard at work at getting this message spread widely, succinctly, and ultimately acted upon.

Through our website, we celebrate the creativity of independent American designers alongside the legacy of antique pieces that were designed before fast furniture embedded convenience over craftsmanship. On each product page, we provide customers with the story behind the piece’s design, as well as an explanation of the environmental impact of the materials used. During a delivery, our team shares this and additional information and history about the piece so our customers can feel a greater connection to the items they bring into their homes and understand the culture that it came from. We have garnered much praise from both the press and our customers about how above and beyond the ZZ delivery and moving experience is. We are proud of turning what would otherwise be an anxiety-inducing experience into a joyful learning opportunity where craftsmanship and creativity take center stage.

It is our goal to both provide a solution to the global problem of fast furniture during our climate crisis as well as inform our audience on the importance of utilizing well-made, high-quality furniture that will stand the test of time. Restoring and being stewards to these fine works — but offering them in a more convenient, accessible, and simply enjoyable way — allows for others, and the industry in general, to experience and understand to an elevated and novel degree what should be the most long-lasting product on our planet, furniture.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Furniture — when made well — is the most sustainable product on our planet. It’s the very reason that antiques exist in the first place! Therefore, it’s our responsibility to ensure that all of our furniture has been carefully selected only after we ensure our designers and manufacturers meet our standards of sustainability — specifically ethical manufacturing, longevity, quality, and fair business practices. This is executed through our rigorous application addressing ethical & regenerative manufacturing and long-term product sustainability. The 42-question application was created in tandem with an expert in regenerative manufacturing and design in order to ensure we are only featuring long-lasting and ethically-made products, as well as this questionnaire has served in our current B Corp Certification audit that we are currently in the process of.

Highlights from our designer application and assessment include:

  • 100% of our designers’ manufacturing facilities follow environmental, health, and safety regulations, and nearly a quarter utilize renewable energy to power their operations
  • 100% of our designers pay their workers a fair living wage
  • 100% of our designers purchase materials locally as often as they can, and most have supply chains that are entirely local
  • 80% of our designers make products with materials that can be recycled, and 60% use biodegradable materials
  • With proper care, the average useful life of our designers’ products is at least 50 years. Most pieces are considered “heirloom quality” and are built to last hundreds of years — eventually becoming revered antiques
  • Nearly all of our contemporary wood products are FSC-certified by the Forest Stewardship Council

At ZZ Driggs, we won’t accept a product into our inventory unless it can obtain heirloom-status. Yet our commitment doesn’t end with product selection. We’ve invested in our ability to protect and maintain these pieces into the future. We consider ourselves true stewards of the furniture we feature and we work with the best local restoration and cleaning partners. We also utilize only the highest quality hardware and low-to-no VOC cleaning and restorative agents and sealants when restoring a piece of furniture. We have even trained our staff in restoration practices to ensure we’re doing our part to extend the life of these products, the oldest of which was made nearly 300 years ago.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

It’s becoming apparent that consumers are not only willing to spend more for high-quality, long-lasting products that will withstand the test of time, but they also are also allocating their consumer dollars to companies, organizations, and makers that are doing right by doing good. Companies must also realize that American businesses today are intersecting with a who is more attune to authentic, values-driven purchasing decisions than ever before, so not only is it in a business’ interest to create products that benefit both people and planet, ultimately our shared climate crisis will allow for only that direction to be taken. Ultimately I don’t think it’s a question around profitability, but rather viability. If you do not steer your business in the direction of planet and inhabitant welfare, you simply will not last.

The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

Kids are certainly brainy in their own right and they pick up on so many things. We all recognize this. Yet what we don’t all seem to notice at times, myself included, is that if we aren’t utilizing a situation or incident as a means to inform and educate the youngest generations on what is happening in real time, then it’s a missed opportunity and we handicap their chance to learn and potentially solution sleuth. For instance, whenever there’s terrible ecological damage that a child witnesses on the news or the like, it’s an opportunity to describe what’s going on in real terms so that they too can be a part of the solution, not the problem. Ultimately, the climate crisis is the most urgent issue for them, as the youngest generations that are inheriting the worst climate catastrophe known to our planet, so we’d be engaging in a moral disservice but not being truthful from the get go.

Certainly a child getting to know how their local environment is impacted by the climate crisis is another early, impactful, and crucial way to understanding and ultimately acting on the negative effects of climate. Every single pocket of this planet is impacted in some way, shape or form. There is no crevice on this crust of this planet that does not feel the effects of this most important issue. The more obvious examples are of course in the southern U.S. with the effects of significantly more potent hurricanes. In California, of course we are bearing witness to more destructive wildfires. However even in less hard-hit areas there are still ways to experience real-time environmental impact. Where I live in the Hudson Valley of New York, intensified and often damaging wind causes significant and otherwise healthy trees to topple. Intense rains cause streets to flood. All of these are opportunities for a child to learn how climate change is impacting them locally and in real time.

Similarly, also understanding how you can help take care of your local environment can both enable a child to learn & understand solutions to the climate crisis as well as to begin the hero’s journey of helping to create solutions for this massive problem that every human will ultimately need to combat.

On a related note, I think kids are oftentimes the biggest conduits for getting the climate crisis message out in ways that aren’t driven by ego or aggression, and ultimately land and make a difference for others. For instance, it’s so much more impactful and less triggering to hear from a child to pick up your garbage or litter than it coming from the mouth of an adult.

Lastly, it’s certainly a universal difficulty in describing the catastrophic effects of our climate crisis to children. To that end, I have to describe that I really admire and respect how Avocado Mattress, the ethically-made mattress company, created a sincerely poignant, sweet, yet greatly impactful children’s story on climate change. It’s well written and it appropriately gets the point across. Definitely worth parents picking up for their little ones if they need some guidance in translating our shared environmental plight with the youngest generations.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

Ariane De Bonvoisin, my brilliant mentor, once described to me that “being good at life means being able to flex the change muscle.” As we all have heard before, the only constant in life is change. Recognizing and accepting that change is inevitable, ultimately makes it less of a blow when it comes your way and, if you get really good at ‘flexing,’ then sometimes you can take pride in how quickly you are able to deal with adversity.

“As a leader, be the thermostat, not the thermometer.” This came from my fiancé and fellow entrepreneur, Matthew Brimer. It means that a leader should set the temperature for how to show up in both day-to-day company culture, but perhaps most importantly, in moments of crisis. If you are level-headed and solution oriented, then your team will follow your lead. If you are frazzled, short tempered, or feeling unbalanced, in all likelihood this will bleed into your company’s culture, too.

“Find the And.” Another great lesson from Ariane. This translates to looking for the middle way in a problematic situation or quandary. Find the “and,” or a mediation and solution between the “either or.” To expand, oftentimes when we are faced with a decision we think we have two choices: this or that, either or, that a problem set is black or white. In reality however, there are often so many solutions that may be found if one just puts their creative thinking cap on and explores what could possibly be “the And.”

I have to give props to David Deida who described that a leader should always try to embody the “higher feminine” and “higher masculine” no matter your gender identification. The higher feminine includes qualities like intuition, kindness, compassion, empathy, wisdom, and balance. The higher masculine includes characteristics like clarity, calmness under pressure, focus, strength, positivity. There are many more attributes to both these personas that are definitely worth looking into and personifying on the regular. On the flipside, the lower feminine exhibits qualities like being gossipy, overly emotional, negative, and always seeking validation. The lower masculine shows up as egotistical, arrogant, rude, pompous, unemotional, and controlling. You can pretty easily find people that fall into these two prior categories quite quickly. They may be people you once knew or even, disappointingly, our political leaders. That being said, some of the world’s greatest leaders embody both the higher masculine and feminine. Think Gandhi, RBG, Abraham Lincoln, John McCain, Queen Elizabeth, Barack Obama, etc. All of these individuals have consistently expressed characteristics of both the higher feminine and masculine, making them a robust and balanced individual that harnesses the power of both sexes.

Lastly, it’s important to recognize from the get-go that building a company ultimately is working on an ever-lasting Rubik’s Cube. It’s important to simply accept from day one that there will always be a solution, you just have to look for it and truly accept that building a company is an ever-constant problem set. While it may not seem that fun to always be in problem solving mode, the fun part without a doubt is when you look back and take stock in all the problem sets you’ve not only worked through, but have excelled in and — most importantly — continue to rise to the occasion for.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Without a doubt my fiancé, Matthew Brimer, who is a fellow entrepreneur and general creative instigator. Matthew is cofounder of General Assembly, a 21st century vocational school, and Daybreaker, the healthy events and fitness company that throws sober morning dance parties around the world. Matthew was the first to ever share what is now my living mantra that “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” He without a doubt moves through life really experiencing this to the fullest. We are our own worst enemy, and once you experience and truly realize it’s your own insecurity, internal judgement, self criticism, self doubt, etc. that is holding you back, there really is no limit to what you might creatively accomplish and propel forward.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love more than anything if we could all become our own in-house experts in the natural world that surrounds us on a hyper local level. For instance, if we were experts of the tree species that are in our own backyards, and thus we knew when these respective tree species reached biological maturation or financial maturation, or even what effects their health and longevity, we would be that much more attune to the needs of our own ecology, and we’d have a far increased reverence for the larger ecology that surrounds us all. This hyper local knowledge extends to the world at large as we’d then understand the importance of each and every ecosystem and we’d act in concert to preserve exactly that.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Pale Blue Dot. This term is so personally crucial as it both helps bring calm and balance in my daily goings on as well as makes me work harder with each day. As background, it is the title of the photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 from 3.5 billion miles away. It was at the request of Carl Sagan, the belovedly prescient astronomer and theorist, who ultimately coined the phrase and later used it as the title to one of his most significant books.

All at once the phrase reminds me of the Overview Effect and how we’re on all this planet together. It’s a reminder that we need to get along and save our one shared home, together. By the same token, it also provides gravitas and revernace in one’s every day and a gentle reminder to not sweat the small stuff.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

If people are interested in learning more about the world of ethical furniture or simply being inspired by heirloom goods and design, they are welcome to join me on Instagram @WhitneyFrancesFalk or @ZZDriggs

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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