When it comes to environmentally sustainable building products, you can’t get much more natural than Bark House shingles. The wall cladding is made exactly how it sounds—from the reclaimed bark of poplar trees. Artisanal craftsmanship transforms what was once a waste material into an elegant, handcrafted finish for exteriors and interiors. A biological nutrient at its core, nothing is added to Bark House and it is fully recyclable at the end of its life.
But the product’s innate sustainability is only one part of the story. The Bark House at Highland Craftsmen Inc., based in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in Spruce Pine, N.C., didn’t stop there, instead dedicating its mission to creating a viable supply chain and expanding its positive impact to other businesses in the region.
“Since our founding in 1990, we have been inspired by the patterns in nature. Nature offers connection to the human spirit and inspiration in its whole system constructs,” says co-founder Chris McCurry. “We are invested in duplicating whole systems thinking, not only in buildings and business but in other institutions of human influence.”
As such, Bark House has taken a “wholistic*” approach to its business, from the low impact of its product lines to the high impact of its social outreach. In the company’s own words: “We hand-craft beautiful wall coverings for exterior and interior spaces using reclaimed bark from trees. We honor the environment through thoughtful product design, procurement, and refinement using sustainably certified processes. We honor people by maintaining a long heritage of artisanal craftsmanship, supporting and enriching local culture, and building whole-communities. We actively share our success through community leadership and education, vendor training, volunteerism, employee-designated donations, and paying a living wage.”
(*Technically, the correct term is “holistic.” But Chris McCurry knows that “wholistic” is a much more apt spelling to represent a mission that balances economy, environment, and community. “At Bark House, we have always taken a wholistic approach to business, from the low impact of our product lines to the high impact of our social outreach,” McCurry says. “This mentality is key to creating balance, and without balance, systems will ultimately fail.”)
Most visible among its commitments is a program begun in 1998, when the company extended its positive economic impact to other businesses by training loggers in the proper procurement and handling of RAW (Recycled Appalachian Wood Waste) poplar bark for shingles. In the first year, they trained 50 loggers, which not only boosted the individuals’ income but helped solve supply chain constraints brought by increasing product demand. “The work of peeling back the bark is hard, but economically worthwhile and environmentally sound,” explains McCurry. “We can increase the income of loggers fourfold for a single tree when the logger brings the bark to us.”
Since that time, they have trained 900 vendors, including last year when they taught displaced coal workers how to procure poplar bark using best management practices.
The company has a similar approach to water use: Bark House requires no water for production, ensuring zero impact, but, yet again, the company expands its influence by volunteering with local water stewardship organizations to preserve the area’s precious streams and rivers from erosion and misuse. “It’s not just that we don’t use water; we’re deeply invested,” says McCurry. The company likewise entrenches itself in social causes, from partnering with local universities to creating an infill park in town.
CELEBRATING CRADLE TO CRADLE
This wholistic standard of practice that Bark House has embraced is what attracted it to—and makes it so ideal for—Cradle to Cradle and its multi-point approach to verifiable sustainability and optimization. It’s also what helped propel Bark House to the top of all Cradle to Cradle certified products.
“C2C was the most stringent, most wholistic strategy that was available to measure our work by,” recalls McCurry. “We wanted to convey our commitment to sustainability. C2C provided that third party verification that we were doing what we were saying.”
Indeed, Cradle to Cradle provides the framework to showcase that commitment, with a verified process that assesses five separate points of consideration—material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
Bark House’s Path to Positive has been a different optimization journey than most other manufacturers that have committed to Cradle to Cradle. The company didn’t have to make adjustments to its product or manufacturing to achieve Cradle to Cradle certification or reach higher certification levels—Bark House shingles are completely natural, with environmentally sound procurement and nothing added. They did, however, regroup processes under C2C’s five focus areas. “Having the five points helped us organize our thoughts and conversations. And how those actions fit into that criteria,” McCurry says. “That translates into having conversations with people.”
Also attractive to the company is Cradle to Cradle’s ability to distribute a common language that educates the public about sustainability. “When we started in 1990, it was certainly harder to explain why we were doing things the way we were doing them,” says McCurry. Cradle to Cradle creator William McDonough “took complex concepts and explained them to masses of people in a way they could understand and become excited about.”
Bark House shingles are also the epitome of Cradle to Cradle’s circular economy models. “The natural simplicity of the product is part of the genius of its intentional design,” McCurry says.
“A major part of the equation is the clean processes behind the manufacturing methodology. The final attribute of the sustainability triad can be found in the cultural enrichment that the bark supports. We have taken a recycled forestry industry waste product, and upcycled it. All three aspects are not just good, they are regenerative. I don’t think anyone could have a problem with a product that actually produces more good than the sum of its ‘simple parts.’ Plus, It’s beautiful. People have to touch it and are touched by it.”
The ingenuity, commitment, and influence have culminated in Bark House achieving Cradle to Cradle Certified Platinum in June 2016—the first ever product to do so in Cradle to Cradle’s history. The remarkable feat requires meeting Platinum requirements across all five attributes, from material health to social fairness, a further tribute to Bark House’s whole systems approach and an official substantiation for its tremendous impact in products, processes, and society.
“Cradle to Cradle isn’t just a measure of marketing; it provides that third-party verification that we are doing what we are saying, from the product level through to our deeper community and environmental commitments,” says McCurry. “The transparency of having that third party gives credence to what we are doing.”