Alabama Sawyer is mining a valuable niche in the movement toward sustainable environmental stewardship. Written by Rosalind Fournier
By taking fallen urban trees and turning them into modern, high-design furniture and other wood products, Alabama Sawyer—founded in 2016 by Cliff Spencer, Leigh Spencer, and Bruce Lanier—fills a valuable niche in the movement toward sustainability and environmental stewardship. It saves these trees from ending up in landfills, creating waste and releasing carbon into the environment as they rot.
The Spencers (who are husband and wife) and Lanier believe in that mission wholeheartedly. But Cliff is quick to point out that “good for the environment” is not Alabama Sawyer’s strongest business value proposition. “We talk about what we do from an economical point of view, a resourceful point of view,” he says. “Instead of seeing a fallen tree as something that gets thrown away, we recognize it as a resource, create the infrastructure to make use of it, and create a valuable product.
“That in turn creates an economic engine that’s valuable for the city, the state and the whole country.”
To grasp the business’ mission, it’s important to distinguish between trees that are specifically grown and harvested for large-scale manufacturing and the urban trees that Alabama Sawyer essentially rescues from becoming refuse. These are the trees found in neighborhoods, parks, or lining city streets—beloved for the shade, privacy and natural beauty they provide. But when these trees are felled by storms, cut down because they’re dangerously close to buildings or power lines, or just reach the end of their natural lifespan, there is no system in place to preserve them. Alabama Sawyer networks with tree services and other collaborators to take these trees before they’re chopped up and shipped away, then dries them and stores them, continually working to build up an inventory of raw material.
Currently, the largest portion of Alabama Sawyer’s sales come from commercial contracts, including orders for large conference tables, counter tops, and shelving. Cliff says business owners today want more than traditional, cookie-cutter workspaces, and Alabama Sawyer offers a way to provide office components that tell stories and add character.
“Tastes have totally changed, and work habits have totally changed,” he says. “We come in to be able to offer unique materials and beautiful, sleek, thoughtful design to create the elements that make these workplaces unique interesting and innovative.”
Another segment of their business comes includes smaller boutique items like ice buckets, breakfast-in-bed trays, and cutting boards. They also occasionally do projects that Leigh calls “concierge work,” including making wood flooring for two homes out of trees from the homeowners’ own backyards or neighborhoods.
The owners say that along with powerful word of mouth publicity and a healthy dose of hustle, Alabama Sawyer owes much of its success to a local culture that appreciates home-grown products and history. “Someone can build a brand around anything,” says Lanier, “but in this case it’s not really just building a brand around the notion of doing nice, custom furniture and great products. It’s an honest narrative about stewardship, design and sense of place.” ∞