Weekly Editorial

Inside the Industry: The Importance of Sustainability

Written By Rob Kirkbride, Editor-in-chief, officeinsight • April 3, 2023

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The office furniture industry generally has a strong history of putting the environment first. Though office furniture wasn’t a leader in sustainability (that crown goes to the floor covering market), it certainly was a fast follower. Office furniture now has environmental leaders at every level and you’d be hard pressed to find an industry that cares more about green initiatives.

Yet what we are doing is nowhere close to being enough. When it comes to the environment, I remember a quote from architect and academic William McDonough, the author of several books on the environment: “Being less bad isn’t being good.”

That’s certainly a quote that fits our industry. We are being less bad, but we definitely aren’t to the point where we are good. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the furniture industry (which to the EPA includes everything from office furniture to sofas, tables, chairs and mattresses) created about 12 million tons of products in 2018 (the most recent statistics available). That same year, just 40,000 tons of furniture was recycled. 9.68 million tons of furniture was landfilled.

So in an age of LEED, BIFMA level, forestry certifications and so many other environmental standards, why is so much furniture ending up in the landfill? In part, because of the complexity of the product. It is easy to recycle an aluminum can because it is simply made of aluminum. A typical office chair, on the other hand, is often made of several metals, foam, plastic and a host of other materials that are usually bonded together in some way that makes them difficult to take apart.

Taking apart furniture is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Even wood furniture is difficult to recycle since the core often uses some type of plywood or chipboard that might have glues and other toxic chemicals as a binder. Good luck peeling laminate from a desk top.

It is important to understand the challenges of the environment, but this is not a column designed to make you feel bad about what you are doing or make the industry feel bad in general. In fact, I want to use the rest of this space to point out a few successes.

I mentioned environmental standards such as LEED and BIFMA level earlier. Both are hugely successful, incredibly important steps toward sustainability and should be supported. The industry has always championed environmental standards, which are a great way to measure how our products and spaces are doing when it comes to sustainability.

The furniture industry also has its share of environmental champions.

Consider the work of Brandi Susewitz, CEO of Reseat. Her innovative company digitally matches those trying to dispose of furniture with those who need it, which has the potential of keeping tons of furniture from ending up in the landfill. Every office furniture manufacturer in the world should be supporting her efforts and helping her make those connections to keep furniture out of the waste stream.

Hopefully you’ve received the latest issue of viewpoint, a new publication from officeinsight that focuses on the environment this month. We feature the work of Ecomedes, a platform created by Paul Shahriari that links the world of interior spaces with the ecologically important products created by the office furniture industry (and others in the built environment).

I also want to highlight the work of Humanscale in this regard. CEO Bob King doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the work he has done to put environmental issues front and center. The company hired Chief Environmental Officer Jane Abernethy in 2018 and she has done a tremendous job positioning the company as an environmental leader, especially when it comes to using ocean-bound plastics in new furniture products.

I also want to challenge the industry (and myself) to do better.

Most of our efforts so far have focused on using recycled content in our furniture products and making the products easier to recycle. The industry has also begun the difficult work of eliminating some of the pesky chemicals from our products by avoiding Red List ingredients.

Perhaps we should also consider emulating the environmental philosophy of European furniture maker Vitra. The company believes the best way to protect the environment when it comes to furniture is to create products that are dear to the people who buy it. Vitra wants to make furniture that becomes an heirloom, passed down and used by multiple generations. You don’t have to recycle what you don’t ever want to throw away.

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