Facility managers who are in the market for sustainably made furniture have a growing number of options. When it comes to commercial and institutional furniture, many manufacturers have taken significant steps to ensure the products they offer use less material and can be more easily updated, thus extending their lives. Many also are making greater use of recycled and recyclable materials and reducing the amount of energy used during the manufacturing process.
Several forces are behind these efforts. As a starting point, many building owners and facility managers are interested in sustainability and are requesting furniture that is produced with a minimal impact on the environment, says Kandice Tjebkes, product and business manager for environmental initiatives with HON Company.
At the same time, manufacturers recognize that many practices that help the environment also are good for business. After all, reducing waste and energy means more revenue headed to a company's bottom line, says Brad Lynch, business unit leader with Wright Line's Tech Environment.
In addition, many manufacturers feel a responsibility to their communities. "We know that the earth will eventually run out of resources," says Bill Bundy, president and chief executive officer with Trendway Corporation. So it makes sense to use these resources carefully.
Regarding furniture, a sustainable approach starts in the design stage. Products that are designed to use fewer materials and consume less energy in the manufacturing process, that are built to endure, and that can be easily re-used or recycled, are inherently more sustainable than others.
With that in mind, many companies apply a "design for the environment" (DFE) approach to their design and manufacturing process. According to DRM Associates, a product development consultancy, DFE means designing with several ideas in mind: environmentally friendly manufacturing, environmentally friendly packaging, and facilitating disposal and recyclability. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a Design for the Environment program, which allows manufacturers of safer products to carry its Design for the Environment label. Some manufacturers may apply the concepts behind this, even if they don't use the actual program from the EPA.)
The idea is to "design environmental sustainability into the products," says Jim Dowling, head of environmental compliance and safety administration with Trendway Corporation. A case in point: At Trendway, employees are designing more work surfaces that are rectangular, rather than other shapes, like triangular. With flat screen monitors so prevalent, corner work surfaces are not needed. "Rectangles reduce the use of particle board and laminate by about 40 percent. When you have odd shapes, there's inherent waste," says Bundy. Similarly, the company introduced non-directional fabric for its workstations. It can be rotated 90 degrees and still look the same, cutting fabric waste by 30 percent.
Allsteel's design for the environment approach starts with "a list of questions that make designers think of things they didn't before," says Keri Luly, manager of sustainability programs with the company. For instance, while durable furniture is inherently more environmentally friendly than throwaway items, fashions change. By making furniture that's durable, but also "re-freshable," a manufacturer can minimize stress on the environment, while also offering furniture that stays looking good.
In its design process, Wright Line analyzes how furniture is used in a facility. For instance, it's been common for furniture to block the flow of heated or cooled air, which wastes energy. To remedy this, Wright Line offers "modesty panels" that sit 18 inches off the floor; they offer privacy, yet allow air to circulate. The company also offers overhead storage organizers that facilitate the flow of natural light into a space.
Designing products so that it's easy to extend their lives is a focus for KI. For instance, the fabric on many of the company's chairs is wrapped around the arms with Velcro, rather than stapled to the frame and connected with dowels and glue, says Norman Nance, vice president of marketing for environmental initiatives. This makes it easier to replace the material and extend the life of the entire chair. It's also easier to disassemble it and recycle components at end of life.
Today, just about every furniture manufacturer touts its commitment to the environment. Facility managers who are wondering just how credible these claims are can turn to several third-party certification programs.
BIFMA level: The BIFMA (Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association) level program focuses on four areas: material utilization, energy and atmosphere, human and ecosystem health, and social responsibility. Manufacturers can earn level 1, 2 or 3; 3 is the highest.
Greenguard: The GREENGUARD Environmental Institute (GEI) has three certification programs. One certifies goods that are used indoors, including furnishings, which have low chemical and particle emissions.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC: FSC-certified forests follow FSC principles and criteria. Among these: encouraging the efficient use of the forest's products and recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples to own, use and manage their land.
MBDC Cradle to Cradle: Products that are Cradle-to-Cradle certified were manufactured with the efficient use of energy and water, have used safe, healthy materials and are designed for material reuse. Products currently certified include fabric for furniture, desks and workstations.
Scientific Certification System: Independently certifies claims of environmental benefits, sustainability, and food quality and purity. Its certification takes into account the entire cradle-to-grave consequences of a product's manufacture, use and disposal.
Furniture Manufacturers Make Products More Sustainable
Efficient Manufacturing and Sustainable Materials Management