Today, more than ever, there is a need to incorporate sustainability practices into all stages of commercial furniture production. Recent environmental concerns have prompted many businesses in the furniture industry to set goals of protecting the environment and prioritizing societal values by making changes that will positively benefit the people and communities in and around their operations.
The production and operations stages get the most attention when addressing environmental concerns. This is because, for most manufacturers, the supply chain accounts for the bulk of their environmental footprint due to significant energy use and waste products generated from production to transportation. However, is the production stage the best time to start thinking about sustainability?
The short answer is no.
How Should Furniture Manufacturers Approach Sustainability?
In practically every project, the planning phase is crucial as it establishes the framework and process that will be followed. This process is not different in the furniture industry, making the pre-production design stage the ideal moment to start talking about sustainability.
Before sustainable design, manufacturers were accustomed to following the traditional design process of making furniture. The introduction of green design necessitated the addition of more steps to the standard design process, and some organizations were unwilling to dedicate time and resources to accommodate this change. However, realizing that to protect the environment and have the edge over competitors, some manufacturers have shifted their view of design from a product development tool to one for promoting a sustainable environment.
Product design is integral to green manufacturing and supply chains in the furniture industry. If a manufacturer is dedicated to creating commercial furniture sustainably, they must start with an environmentally conscious product design.
What Sustainable Design Looks Like
During design, a sustainability-inspired approach ensures that decisions consider the product’s end life. Often, this impacts the supply chain by affecting the selection of materials, the product life span, and the location of suppliers.
These sustainable product design choices may include prioritizing a simple design that uses a few high-quality, long-lasting, durable, reusable, and recyclable materials. While making furniture from recycled materials is an important aspect of green design, it is vital to confirm that these products are recyclable. Not everything recyclable is made of recycled materials, and not everything with recycled content can be recycled. However, a genuinely sustainable furniture piece is both recycled and recyclable. This is essential to maintain a circular economy, ensuring nothing is wasted.
Similarly, sustainability can also be achieved by designing products that can tolerate long-term use and be reused and reconfigured, thus serving multiple purposes. A furniture piece that can be repaired, reupholstered, and refurbished is a perfect example of one that will surpass its original lifespan. Products with a longer lifespan are less likely to end up as landfill waste.
Another way of designing sustainably is creating lightweight furniture that requires little packaging. Even better if the packaging is eco-friendly. This has the dual benefit of reducing packaging waste and decreasing the per-unit carbon emissions from transportation.
Examples of How Furniture Manufacturers are Incorporating Sustainable Design
Many leading furniture manufacturers are showing that green design is the future by actively embracing and championing designing commercial furniture with sustainability at its core. For example, Haworth has expressed their commitment to “designing products with the people in mind while making the best use of the earth’s resources for a sustainable future.” This is part of their support for a circular economy where recycling and repurposing allow resources to be used perpetually, creating a closed-loop system that reduces waste. Recently, they launched an innovative biodegradable textile made from 100% post-consumer waste material to reduce carbon footprint. This initiative exemplifies what it means to factor in sustainability from the pre-production design stage.
Another manufacturer that embodies sustainable design is Emeco, whose philosophy is exploring and innovating new ways to use consumer and industrial waste and environmentally responsible resources to create simple and timeless furniture. Around 90% of Emeco’s product range is made from recycled materials.
Impact of Trade Associations on Promoting Sustainable Design
Not only furniture manufacturers are championing sustainability in design. Trade associations like the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI) have created the e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard that includes criteria for measuring office furniture sustainability. Additionally, in 2009, BIFMA introduced LEVEL®, a sustainability certification program for furniture that focuses on four primary areas, including materials selection and usage, which is part of the design process.
There are three levels to LEVEL®; the higher the number, the more criteria have been met. Certification encourages furniture manufacturers to think of sustainable design through all stages of product development and fabrication.
How Can You and I Encourage Sustainable Design?
Our role as furniture buyers and end users is critical to ensuring sustainable design continues to be incorporated into furniture manufacturing. First, we need to research the furniture manufacturers we support, confirming that they care about the environment and opt to purchase high-quality pieces that have been designed and produced sustainably. Then, to extend our furniture’s lifespan, we should reuse and repurpose them, and when they become unusable, recycle them.
Let’s envision a world where every piece of commercial furniture in the market is designed and manufactured using sustainable materials and processes. That’s the world we want to see, and together, we can help achieve this by pushing the furniture industry toward a greener future!