A Greener Future: How Can the Furniture Industry Take a Sustainable and Responsible Approach to Manufacturing?
Since the Government published its Net Zero Strategy in 2021, setting out clear targets to decarbonise the UK economy and meet net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, sustainability has been brought into sharp focus. We are all aware of the impact climate change is having on our planet, from flooding, to severe storms and extreme heat waves. Our human impact, depleting natural resources and consuming energy, has caused global-warming at such an alarming rate that scientists warn the effects could be irreversible by 2030 if we do not take action now. The Living Planet Report 2022 published by the World Wildlife Federation revealed an average decline of 69% in species populations since 1970. We all have a responsibility to reduce our environmental impact to protect and preserve our natural habitat for future generations. So, how can the furniture industry take a sustainable and responsible approach to manufacturing?
What is Sustainability?
Sustainability is a whole-society goal that refers to the ability of people, plants, and animals to co-exist on Earth over a long period of time to maintain an ecological balance. This balance is crucial to improve the quality of our lives. Within the furniture industry, it is important to take a holistic approach to sustainability, considering raw materials, supply chain, manufacturing processes, product quality, logistics and customer service. These considerations support a robust circular economy model. Furniture manufacturers are increasingly aware of the growing demand for sustainable furniture. Consumers are making more eco-friendly purchases and within the commercial world companies are pursuing their own sustainability agenda and making procurement decisions with a green conscience. This is particularly true within public sector procurement where sustainable sourcing is a mandatory requirement.
A Sustainable Supply Chain
Furniture manufacturers with a clear intention to adopt improved sustainable processes and produce more sustainable furniture, must first review their supply chain. It is important to select suppliers who share the same ethos to reduce their carbon footprint in the production and supply of their materials. Failure to do this could lead to efforts being perceived as a greenwashing exercise. ISO 20400 is the international standard for sustainable procurement. In the UK there are a broad range of accreditations, but ISO 14001 is widely recognised as the main ISO standard to help organisations run an effective EMS (Environmental Management System), and therefore limit the business's overall environmental impact. All timber should be sourced responsibly and ethically from FSC®-certified suppliers. FSC® forest management certification authenticates that the forest is being managed in a way that preserves biological diversity and benefits the lives of local people and workers, while ensuring it sustains economic viability. FSC®-certified forests are managed to strict environmental, social, and economic standards.
The supply of sustainable materials directly correlates with a sustainable supply chain. Different materials will have varied environmentally-friendly credentials. As aforementioned, all timber should be FSC®-certified, and the great benefit of using wood in furniture production is that it is durable and 100% biodegradable.
Whilst only 4% of the world's oil production is used for plastics and much less energy is used to produce it compared to other materials, plastics are human-made polymers and are non-biodegradable, meaning they cannot be easily handled and do not decompose naturally. Plastic is a major contributor to global warming and plastic pollution is harmful to wildlife and marine life. It is impossible to stop its use entirely, but more eco-friendly alternatives should be sought where possible.
There are many sustainable fabric options available now for upholstery and soft seating. Take for example ‘Oceanic’ by Camira, designed specifically to tackle marine plastic pollution and achieve a waste free environment. It is created from post-consumer recycled plastic found discarded in our seas and bottles destined for landfill, and usefully repurposed to create SEAQUAL® YARN. Panaz also demonstrate their commitment to sustainable fabrics with ecoTWILL™. Made in Britain from plastic bottles, this 100% recycled polyester base cloth allows architects and designers to specify a fire-retardant contract standard fabric which itself is recyclable at end-of-life. Edmund Bell also take their climate pledge seriously with Sway, made from REPREVE® yarns it is a fire retardant sustainable fabric made from 100% recycled materials, including post-consumer plastic bottles and pre-consumer waste.
Fabric suppliers are also paying attention to the processes involved in fabric production. Agua has launched VerdEco, an eco-friendly upholstery fabric that uses 100% recycled yarn and zero water in its production. The use of organic materials in fabric production also ensures a more sustainable approach. Chieftain Fabrics use organic pigments made from natural sources such as plants and plant products or other carbon-based life forms as they do not contain heavy metals and are more stable than inorganic dyes. Their faux leather and woven fabrics all have an organic cotton backing as it is grown using methods and materials that have a low impact on the environment, without the use of harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
There is a positive increase in fabric suppliers championing the use of eco-friendly and sustainable fabrics, such as The Lindhurst Group, a carbon neutral company advocating an extensive selection of pioneering eco-friendly materials made from recycled, regenerative or ethically sourced raw materials.
Foam suppliers are required to conform with Annex I of the REGULATION (EU) 2019/1021 on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to ensure poisonous chemical substances have not been used in the production of their foam. This means the furniture can be recycled or prepared for re-use.
Carbon Footprint – Reducing Emissions and Waste
Manufacturers can reduce their carbon emissions or offset carbon to start a journey to carbon neutrality. Removing the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere as they produce will achieve Net-Zero status.
An effective way to reduce carbon emissions is to source locally. Reducing the transportation distance of materials will reduce harmful CO2 emissions from fuel consumption.
Waste prevention and recycling reduces the amount of waste sent to incinerators, lowering the greenhouse gases emitted during combustion. Sawdust and wood scraps can be taken to local facilities to be used for heat and power, cardboard waste can be recycled, foam scraps can be re-used as packaging, and fabric offcuts can be recycled.
A Greener Future
Now more than ever buyers are looking for transparency, accountability and innovation from the companies they buy from. Manufacturers who are actively making sustainable choices when it comes to material sourcing, production processes and lifetime value of the finished product will reap the rewards of not just a loyal customer base, but a healthier and more sustainable planet. At Rhubarb Seating we are committed to promoting sustainable manufacturing by creating products through economically-sound processes, minimising environmental impact, conserving energy and using sustainable materials where possible. We are ISO 90001, ISO 14001 and FISP accredited, FSC® Certified, and registered with Interface – a Carbon Reduction Pilot programme to start our journey to net zero and ISO 14064 and PAS 2060 accreditation.