Sustainable office interiors

From the February 2023 print edition

More than ever, there is a need to incorporate sustainability practices into all stages of commercial furniture production.

PurchasingEnvironmental concerns have prompted many businesses in the furniture industry to set goals of protecting the environment and prioritizing societal values by making changes to 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 from production to transportation. However, is the production stage the best time to start thinking about sustainability? The short answer is no.

Approaching sustainability
In practically every project, the planning phase is crucial as it establishes the framework and process. This process is not different in the furniture industry, making the pre-production design stage the ideal moment to talk about sustainability.

Before sustainable design, manufacturers followed the traditional design process of making furniture. Introducing green design meant adding more steps to the standard design process, and some organizations were unwilling to dedicate time and resources to change. However, realizing that to protect the environment and have the edge over competitors, some manufacturers have shifted their design view from a product development tool to one promoting sustainability.

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 sustainable approach ensures that decisions consider the product’s end life. Often, this impacts the supply chain by affecting materials selection, the product life span, and the location of suppliers.

These sustainable product design choices may include prioritizing a simple design using 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 sustainable furniture piece is recycled and recyclable. This is essential to maintain a circular economy, ensuring nothing is wasted.

Similarly, sustainability can be achieved by designing products to tolerate long-term use and be reused and reconfigured, thus serving multiple purposes. A furniture piece that can be repaired, reupholstered, and refurbished is an 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 means reducing packaging waste and decreasing the per-unit carbon emissions from transportation.

Incorporating sustainable design
Many leading furniture manufacturers are showing that green design is the future by embracing the design of sustainable commercial furniture. 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-per cent, post-consumer waste material to reduce carbon footprint. Another example is Emeco, a manufacturer 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 per cent of Emeco’s product range is made from recycled materials.

Trade associations
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.

Encouraging 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.

Fola Adedeji is marketing coordinator at Office Interiors.