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Sustaining a dream:
Gerry & Petie Cooklin and South Cone
The fine-furniture manufacturer based in Los Angeles, California and
with production facilities in Peru and Argentina brings commitment to
sustainability back to the Amazon and its people.
by Mark Evertz
To Gerry Cooklin, the business case for sustainable forestry
and therefore a sustainable furniture industry is a nobrainer. Without trees there is no wood. Without wood there
is no South Cone furniture. Without the furniture industry
there would likely be no forests, particularly in his native
“The more I researched this, the more I realized that making
furniture using sustainable forest products is probably the
best thing you can do for forests,” said Cooklin, the
president and CEO of South Cone1, a Los Angeles-based fine
furniture manufacturer with facilities in Peru and Argentina.
“It’s good for the forests because it keeps them producing as
forests rather than some other use; it’s good for
manufacturers because they get the constant supply of
wood and it conserves the biodiversity of forests.”
According to Cooklin, this business case is largely met with
apathy in the furniture industry, so he decided to be a vocal
champion for sustainable forestry and forest products. In
fact, that took the form of a missive last year to industry
laggards – challenging old guard furniture manufacturers to
change their old ways of doing business or risk ruining it for
"I challenge the industry to stop destroying the environment
1 South Cone designs and manufactures fine home furnishings for the North American
market, including suites and accents for the living room, dining room and bedroom. In
addition to being the largest furniture maker in Peru, South Cone is the world leader in
sustainable furniture manufacturing and has repeatedly raised the environmental
benchmark. South Cone is headquartered in Gardena, CA. For more information, visit
For more information please contact us at 503.224.2205 or at
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and join me in developing cooperative, sustainable business
practices that will meet the changing consumer demands for
greater corporate responsibility," Cooklin wrote in an open
letter to furniture manufacturers.
Before dismissing Cooklin’s rant as a business ploy or some
way to call attention to himself, consider this: If his peers do
what he’s asking—use only wood from sustainably harvested
forests around the world and consider using lesser-known
wood species with similar performance characteristics
instead of heavily exploited species like Mahogany—he
stands to create a flurry of market activity and significantly
more competition for the company he started nearly 20
years ago.
“What made me take the time to stir the pot?” Cooklin
pondered. “I call it the Power of Furniture. We are the ones
creating the demand. We’re the ones that can ask our
suppliers, ‘Hey buddy…Where is this wood coming from?’
“I’m trying to go for that slap in the face, saying ‘Yo! At least
ask the question!’” exclaimed Cooklin. “If I can even get one
tenth of one percent of the furniture makers out there to ask
the question “Where is this wood coming from?” then I can
begin to create a critical mass.”
Adds Cooklin’s wife, Patricia “Petie” Cooklin:
“Sure we’re creating jobs, and nice lives for people but the
end goal is to preserve the environment and people, said
Petie, also South Cone’s operations manager for North
America. “We’re not competitive on that.”
South Cone aims to stay in business to keep that mission
alive by having an endless supply of wood to make its brand
of high-end tables, chairs, bed frames and more from exotic
South Cone is named after the cone shape of the southern
part of South America where the company produces it
products; namely Cooklin’s native Peru and Argentina. His
company is driven from the top down and the ground up to
become synonomous with sustainability in the furniture
industry. With its 450 employees (320 in Peru, 80 in
Argentina, 40 in Los Angeles, and 20 independent
salespeople) South Cone is Peru’s largest furniture
manufacturer and produces more than 75 percent of all
furniture exported from there. The business that is helping
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transform his homeland started 20 years ago after a bit of
an epiphany.
“I hired forest engineers from Peru and what I found out was
shocking,” Cooklin recalled. “Eighty-five percent of the
rainforest is burned down to clear the land and 12 percent
of it is used for fire wood. That means that only 3 percent is
logged and used because of its commercial value, and little if
any of that commercial value is making its way to the
indigenous people.
“I thought ‘Oh my God…making furniture is actually a good
use of forests rather than have it all go up in smoke.’”
Cooklin was baffled by what he viewed as a waste of
ecological value and forest resources that could serve his
customers and countrymen.
“If I can even get one tenth of one percent of the furniture
makers out there to ask the question “Where is this wood
coming from?” then I can begin to create a critical mass.”
— Gerry Cooklin
“There is a wonderful amount of biodiversity there and
that’s why I’m so passionate about it; because to me there
is no logic to our destroying forests or the Amazon. Only
1½ percent of the spec ies are known but there are hundreds
of trees that are just as good—they just don’t have the
brand name,” he says. “Mahoghany just benefits by being
the Coca-Cola of the forest.”
Cooklin says he found his niche here: For the forest and the
power of industry to drive environmental and social
“Business can and should be a vehicle for positive change in
the world by consciously seeking to engage in practices that
are socially and environmentally sound.”
With this newfound mission in the late 90s, Cooklin
searched for a like-minded organization to partner with. “I
didn’t find one that understood my desire to protect and
employ the forests’ resources,” he recalls.
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So he went on alone and formed his own nonprofit, PaTS, to
complement his business mission. He targeted the Palcazu
Valley of the Peruvian Rainforest, piggybacking on the work
of The Nature Conservancy and its Peruvian partner
Pronaturaleza (See sidebar on the next page).
“I’m a firm believer in what the Hindus call Dharma or
pursuing your purpose in life. Mine clearly is to restore the
balance of nature. I’ve been given the tools to make a
difference,” Cooklin said. And he’s seeing customers begin to
be aware of their own impacts on the world.
“Business can and should be a vehicle for positive change in the
world by consciously seeking to engage in practices that are
socially and environmentally sound”
— Gerry Cooklin
"Consumer awareness is quickly shifting, with the growing
interest in organic food and the dramatic rise in energy
costs," Cooklin wrote in the letter to the industry. "It will be
only a short time before this translates to the furniture
industry. Companies who are adopters now will reap the
benefits when the tipping point comes.
“The Amercan public is changing its attitude about
purchasing. Consumers are becoming increasingly aware,
and demanding to know that the products they buy reflect
their own personal values of social and environmental
responsibility," he added.
That willingness to go out on a limb is garnering notice in
environmental circles as well. Liza Murphy for one sees
Cooklin as a valuable asset in the molding of public opinion
on the issue of sustainable forestry.
“South Cone has really taken a leadership position in the
furniture industry. They are constantly working to identify
new sources and community-based enterprises that make it
all come together. They’ve really got the whole package,” said
the Rainforest Alliance’s manager of forest product
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“Because of their efforts and prosteletyzing, the furniture
industry is sitting up and paying attention, particularly on
issues related to
PaTS on the back for a job wellsustainability.
There is
certainly now a
Partnerships and Technology for Sustainability (PaTS)
is a small, non-profit organization based in Peru that
awareness and
emphasizes applying a business approach to achieve
Daphne Hewitt,
also from
Alliance, added
that the
organization is
working with
South Cone in
three distinct
workshops for
and others in
the sector to
forest product
use in business;
through the
program, now
with COCs
(Chain of
certifications) in
all of its
facilities (Peru,
Argentina and
L.A.); and
working on
analyzing its
supply chain
South Cone, a high-end furniture manufacturer with a
long-standing presence in the U.S. market, founded
PaTS in 2001. This non-governmental organization is
charged with the mission to promote forest
sustainability and the well being of present and future
generations by bridging global markets with
responsible forest management.
According to the South Cone Web site, PaTS differs
from most environmental organizations in that it links
the concept of sustainability with wealth creation,
closing the gap between natural resource
management and markets. It provides consumers who
want to contribute to rainforest conservation an
effective vehicle for this resource preservation.
Since its inception, PaTS has been working with the
Yanesha people of the Palcazu Valley in Peru’s central
Amazon region through the Sustainability Makes Cents
Project. Through this project, PaTS trains Yanesha
artisans to transform resources from their managed
forests into finished products that command a much
higher value. The Yanesha are skilled in carving a
range of wooden accessories, including tableware,
stools, and candleholders, as well as in creating
naturally dyed and hand-painted textiles and wall art.
South Cone completes the value chain by marketing
these products in the United States. The project
provides the Yanesha with a means to generate a
reasonable income from their labor and natural
resources, creating an incentive for them to continue to
use their forests wisely.
“One of the most rewarding things is meeting with the
Artisans and seeing the satisfaction on their faces,”
says Amy Smith, PaTS project director. “It was great to
see that after that first group of seven people in a
workshop started earning a steady income, enrollment
in the workshops is 100 percent.”
PaTS’s project portfolio also includes the LesserKnown Species Project (LKS), which identifies tree
species for commercial use.This raises the value of
forests, makes forest management more economically
viable, and gives rainforest communities commercial
options that are superior to slash-and-burn agriculture.
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and progress on company goals related to sustainability.
“I can’t say that I’ve worked with anyone who is as enthused
as Gerry, says Hewitt. “South Cone is doing this from the
CEO level on down. It’s usually something started by
someone in the middle.”
For Gerry it’s about working with people who share his
views and unquenchable desire to make a difference, which
is why he said Rainforest Alliance was the right match.
“Tensie Whelan (Rainforest Alliance’s executive director) is a
mover and a shaker,” said Cooklin. “They are organized and
we have great chemistry with them. We think alike and we’re
helping them make inroads in the area of sustainable
furniture so it’s a win-win.”
Another win-win, according to Petie Cooklin, is their alliance
with ABC furniture in New York and Zimmer Associates
International, who she says are perfect conduits to
consumers because of their like-minded approach to
sustainability in the furniture industry.
“These are exactly the kinds of true partnerships that we
want, where we find stores or other companies that transmit
our message – South Cone: Live Sustainably – which
really needs to get through to the end consumer,” she said.
“Because of their efforts and prosteletyzing, the furniture
industry is sitting up and paying attention, particularly on issues
related to sustainability. There is certainly now a greater
awareness and momentum.”
— Liza Murphy
Rainforest Alliance
Bob Zimmer, CEO of Zimmer Associates International, a
global sustainable design consultancy, said he is using South
Cone products in several high-end hotel projects that will
specialize in green building, interiors and social
commitments in the communities where they will build.
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“For us, it goes deeper than (just the end-product),” said
Zimmer. “It is actually helping create a secondary economy
for indigenous people. You can create a lot of social ills as a
developer. We want to create opportunity.
“As a result we’re working with companies that think like we
do,” Zimmer continued. “Wherever we can, we’ll specify
South Cone products in our buildings based on an
alignment of values. It’s so important for all of us
championing sustainability to support each other and what
we’re doing.”
It is that marrying of business operations and
environmental and social pursuits that drives the Cooklins
and their company to this day.
“As we were developing our values as a couple, as thirtysomethings with all of this idealism, Gerry and I came to
realize that we can affect change as individuals,” said Petie,
adding, “but we are also business people who understand
that it has to be profitable to be sustainable. I’m a daughter
of people in the oil business, but I’m not rejecting my past. I
am part of an evolution that uses the tools of capitalism
Gerry says his message to business people – whether they
make furniture or anything else – is simple: “Being
sustainable as a business is clearly doable and it’s the right
thing to do,” he said. “It is becoming more and more
apparent that businesses have to go in a more sustainable
direction or they’ll become dinosaurs. The older business
practices just don’t work either do this or
eventually you’ll go out of business.”
Then, he softened up a bit.
“Like anything new, it is hard at the beginning; to learn a
new way of doing business,” he said. “But it becomes easier
as you move forward every single day, knowing that what
you’re doing is sustainable.”
Key Observations—Adherence to values,
collaboration, exerting influence
Other businesses can draw important lessons from South
Cone Trading Company’s approach to innovation, leadership
and environmental stewardship.
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1. Change is catalyzed by leadership and a strict
adherence— if not outright stubbornness—to stay true to
the organization’s values. Gerry and Petie Cooklin are
creative and flexible problem solvers, but their
company’s values – to ensure business, environmental
and societal sustainability through their responsible
business operations – remain the constant regardless of
challenge or opportunity.
2. Businesses can find an alignment between
environmental and financial outcomes by viewing
environmental and social issues as potential market
opportunities. South Cone has a history of looking for
ways of developing furniture or working with indigenous
groups through its PaTS program to achieve their goals
of making furniture sustainable, profitable and
conducive to human well-being.
3. Collaboration across sectors can be highly effective
when there is an alignment of desired outcomes.
Wherever possible South Cone works with vendors that
share their commitment to sustainability and often uses
them as communications vehicles to convey the
company’s message of “South Cone Lives Sustainably.”
Company representatives acknowledged that they could
not have made progress toward this goal alone, but that
they were willing to forego certain partnerships that
didn’t align with their company values to stay true to the
mission of the organization. Gerry quickly added,
however: “This is the ideal scenario. The truth is that not
all of our vendors are committed to sustainability.
Unfortunately, at this stage of things, working exclusively
with sustainable vendors would make us too
uncompetitive in certain areas, and we cannot afford that,
but we are committed to use as much wood as possible
and other components that are sustainable.”
For more information on South Cone Trading Company, visit
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