Weekly Editorial

How Can The Office Furniture Industry Help To Protect The Environment?

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Write Office • October 17, 2022

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I have a friend who works for JLL in a large Southwest city. She is tasked with clearing out offices when companies leave. I’m always shocked when she tells me what companies simply leave behind when they vacate an office. Printers worth thousands of dollars, high-end nugget ice makers and office furniture. Loads and loads of office furniture.

As an industry editor, I’ve been through my fair share of economic downturns and when the economy begins to slow, one important consideration in our industry seems to take a back seat: the environment.

When the economy is strong, it seems as if protecting the environment is easy. Everyone has a bit more discretionary money and if a green product costs a bit more, well, it is a lot easier to specify. When the purse strings tighten, environmental considerations seem to be forgotten or at least pushed aside.

I’m not here to argue about global warming or whether concerning weather patterns are preventable or simply part of a larger cycle as the earth ebbs and flows. I am here to say that the industry should keep the environment at the forefront regardless of the economic situation.

The interiors industry has done a masterful job of leading the way when it comes to environmental issues. Ray Anderson at Interface led the way and many office furniture makers followed. Many of those same office furniture makers outline their environmental goals each year and design products with earth-friendly attributes.

Despite these positives, it is not enough. In the U.S. alone, according to a University of Michigan study, 17 million pounds of office furniture is tossed out each year with just a small percentage of that even able to be recycled. More than two-thirds of unwanted office furniture is trashed. Some estimate that less than 10% of office furniture is used after its “first life” — after the original owner of the furniture is through with it.

When it comes to the environment, the office furniture industry seems to focus on a few areas: the environmental health of the materials used to build the furniture and the energy consumed to produce it. For example, both Humanscale (which was first) and MillerKnoll have chairs made using ocean-bound plastics. Steelcase, in its environmental report touts its use of renewable energy and reduction in emissions. Both are very important considerations when protecting the environment and rightfully deserve our applause.

But making green furniture in an environmentally friendly way is just one part of the equation and ignores a question just as important: What happens to office furniture when it isn’t wanted or needed anymore?

For years, we have benefitted from office furniture refurbishers and resellers. A few fledgling companies are starting to create online secondary markets for used furniture as well, but as the statistics above prove, too much furniture is still ending up in the landfill. Even when products are truly recyclable, they rarely are. Even demountable walls, which have the advantage of being designed to be reused, are often torn out and thrown away. 

I’ve always appreciated the environmental thinking at Vitra. I once asked Rolf Fehlbaum, chairman emeritus and Vitra board member, his thinking about the environment and building furniture products with the environment in mind.

Reducing the company’s environmental footprint and designing products with recycled content and those able to be recycled is important, he said, but he outlined the company’s overarching outlook that informs its environmental mission. The best way to protect the environment when designing and building office furniture, he said, is to create products that are timeless and valued well beyond the first day they arrive in the office. “We want to create furniture that people hold onto, pass down and value. That is how to protect the environment,” he said.

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