Article • Sales Tip
A Look at Sustainable Materials in Commercial Interiors
Written By Jim Heilborn, INDEAL • April 14, 2023
Quick disclaimer – A lot of this article is based on information I gathered while doing research, so I found it best to include some phrases from those articles…although many of the authors were uncredited. I was looking for a fair and balanced view on the subject. For every plus I looked for a negative. I believe that sustainability is vital for the furniture industry, the environment, and the world in general. This is just one way to look at the subject.
The word sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain”, “support”, or “endure”.
Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being. Author unknown
A lot has been written about the need to produce more sustainable office furniture. Going green. I agree that this is an important goal for the industry. It isn’t unusual to focus on new furniture and the process of making it. I read that seven of the most sustainable materials used in office furniture are wood, bamboo, natural fabrics, steel, aluminum, recycled materials, and new innovative products.
I was curious how each one was considered a sustainable material and found this information:
Wood – If sustainably sourced, wood is one of the most environmentally friendly materials available as it is infinitely renewable and acts as a carbon store, giving it an important role in reducing carbon emissions. I found pine, oak, and beech listed as the best woods. Unfortunately, widely used materials like ‘fake’ woods, such as particleboard, MDF and plywood, can emit harmful gases due to the adhesives used in manufacturing.
Bamboo – Bamboo (technically a grass) can grow much faster than wood, making it one of the best sustainable resources for office furniture. It can grow to full size in one to five years compared to most other trees which can take a decade or more to grow. Bamboo also plays an important role in reducing the carbon footprint as it absorbs carbon from the environment and releases high oxygen levels into the atmosphere.
Natural fabrics – Natural fabrics like wool, hemp, and linen are not only sustainable but also have organic, textural interest, which provides a calming aesthetic for the office. It’s even possible to repurpose existing chairs by reupholstering them in these fabrics, rather than buying new. There is a downside to these, however, as the strength of natural fibers is less compared to synthetic fibers, natural fibers are heavy in weight, natural fibers can be damaged by moths and other insects, these fibers are not usually wrinkle-free, and they aren’t as long-lasting; hence not as durable. A lot more work needs to be done to make them a better fit for the industry.
Steel – While I was surprised to see this on the list, steel is classified as a sustainable material for a number of reasons. It’s strong, meaning you don’t need a lot of it. It can be reused almost infinite times, making it endlessly recyclable. It takes very little energy to produce, and it’s also not toxic to people or the environment once it’s made. In the interest of fairness, steel production requires large inputs of coke (a sort of coal) which is extremely damaging to the environment. Coke ovens emit air pollution such as naphthalene which is highly toxic and can cause cancer.
Aluminum – Like steel, aluminum can be infinitely recycled. Recycling also saves 95% of the energy used in its production from raw materials. The end product itself seems to be safe; it is the production that is in question. Aluminum has not been classified with respect to carcinogenicity; however, “aluminum production” has been classified as carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC); specifically aluminum dust.
Recycled materials – Recycled materials are also sustainable as they don’t rely on non-renewable resources. New materials require fresh raw materials to be sourced and created for the first time, rather than reusing materials that can be recycled again at the end of their lives.
Office furniture manufacturers are embracing the new design possibilities that recycled materials offer to reduce the carbon emissions associated with producing furniture items.
For example, the base and back frame of the Steelcase Think chair is made from recycled glass fiber. Steelcase’s ‘Ocean to Office’ initiative also sees them using plastics dumped in the sea to weave new, durable and aesthetically unique materials for use in acoustic screening.
Another word of caution – new research finds that recycled plastic bottles are likely to contain chemicals more harmful than those made from virgin plastic. A study conducted by Brunel University London identified 150 chemicals in plastic bottles that leached into the bottles’ content.
Innovative materials – Manufacturers are looking for more sustainable ways to produce office furniture, so new material alternatives are being invented all the time.
Mushroom mycelium has been hailed as a sustainable material of the future. It has several valuable properties as a manufacturing material as it can grow into almost any shape and can vary in density. It acts as an insulator for sound and heat and is even fire-resistant. It is a safe, strong, and biodegradable material with a wide range of uses. However, unlike plastics and other synthetic materials – which can take hundreds of years to decompose – mycelium-based products naturally degrade after their intended product cycle; possibly 20 to 30 years depending on the application.
Meanwhile, the world’s first carbon-negative chair was made with AirCarbon™, a revolutionary thermoplastic developed by Newlight Technologies. More recently, Steelcase launched the new Flex Perch Stool, made from post-consumer electronics production waste – which was once impossible to recycle into like-new raw material.
A lot of the environmental impact of office furniture (and furniture in general) depends on what happens at the beginning during manufacturing. The process may result in a sustainable product but the process to make it also needs to be less harmful. That is the challenge manufacturers will have going forward; regardless of the best intentions.
Jim Heilborn is INDEAL’s Training and Development Consultant specializing in the office furniture/products industry, working nationwide with dealers, manufacturers, and service providers. Jim has been associated with INDEAL since 2011, focused on training and dealer development. Jim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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