In light of growing environmental consciousness worldwide and future generations’ increasing influence on the furniture market, furniture companies are increasingly focusing on the environmental impact of their operations. A recent poll conducted by Capstrat Public Policy demonstrated just how important sustainable living is to many consumers. The poll found that over half of the shoppers surveyed would be willing to pay for a product that was more expensive than the other options if it was more sustainable.
A commitment to eco-friendly design and manufacturing principles not only allows companies to do their part to preserve the Earth for generations to come, but it can also be a valuable tool for reducing operational costs and garnering customer loyalty. Following are some of the many areas in which furniture industry stakeholders have prioritized the battle to reduce the sector’s ecological footprint.
Sustainability-Focused Industry Associations
A number of new and established industry organizations have taken the lead in making environmental consciousness a priority in the furnishings sector. Offering membership and, in some cases, special accolades to companies with a proven dedication to sustainability, these groups have unified the industry around core sustainability goals, creating new operational standards and third-party certification programs to help firms assess and improve their environmental performance. In addition, their efforts have made sustainability issues more visible to customers, while also creating convenient avenues for buyers to research the environmental implications of their potential purchases.
Organizations with a stated interest in improving the sustainability of furniture design and manufacturing include the American Home Furnishing Association (AHFA), which has launched several programs under its broader Eco3Home sustainability initiative. Member companies initially implement Enhancing Furniture’s Environmental Culture program, a facility-level framework designed to improve resource management, limit energy and water usage, and enhance recycling and waste management processes. In the next stage of the multi-step program, Sustainable by Design, companies set sustainability goals in areas such as supply chain management; social responsibility; and climate change, which assists them in later providing specific health, safety, and environmental criteria to register products with AHFA’s Eco3Home seal of approval.
Other industry organizations spearheading sustainability efforts include the Business and Institutional Manufacturers Association, which has created a certification program to ensure responsible energy consumption, material sourcing, and social practices among the business furnishings industry. At the same time, the Sustainable Furnishings Council has worked on the frontlines of sustainability efforts since its inception in 2006. Supported by a diverse group of industry stakeholders encompassing retailers, manufacturers, and nonprofit environmental groups, the council leverages education and communication to advocate for sustainable practices throughout the furnishings industry.
Phasing out Toxic Substances
As sustainability becomes a higher priority for furniture manufacturers, many are closely examining the chemicals used in their production processes, as well as any potentially harmful substances released into the environment by their activities. The finishings, treatments, and binding agents used on furniture can pose a risk to consumers, even after they leave the manufacturing facility. Furniture manufactured with formaldehyde or flame-retardant chemicals can release toxic gases into the home in a process known as “off-gassing,” posing a risk to humans, animals, and the environment.
The avoidance of materials and processes that involve toxic materials not only stems from growing environmental awareness within the furniture industry, but also from bolstered environmental regulations. In August 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the rules in Title VI of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which allows the agency to enforce rules regarding the production, transportation, use, and disposal of potentially harmful chemicals. Drafted to lessen the danger posed by formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, Title VI restricts the amount of the substance that manufacturers may use in plywood, medium-density fiberboard pieces, particle board, and hardwood.
Furniture companies are seeking materials from sustainably managed sources, often carefully assessing their supply chains to ensure that each leg of a product’s production journey yields a limited environment impact. This has elevated the importance of local sourcing while also increasing the popularity of wood as a design material. Both reclaimed wood and wood harvested from sustainable forests help to combat deforestation, and some companies are even making an effort to replenish those forests that provide their wood.
While it is considered a type of grass rather than wood, bamboo is an exceptionally popular sustainable resource for a number of reasons. Often grown without the use of pesticides, bamboo grows quite quickly and thus takes a relatively short amount of time to replace. Durable and pliable, bamboo is both antibacterial and antifungal.
An important aspect of sustainable resource consumption is recycling and responsible waste management. Unique upcycled furniture pieces are no longer relegated to thrift shops and vintage stores. Now, many mainstream retailers are harnessing the concept as a sustainable trend. Recycling often presents an opportunity for furniture designers to draw on their creativity to rework pieces from previous seasons or to repurpose resources that would usually be thrown away. The concept of recycling and reuse is important not only in furniture design, but in distribution, as well. Increasingly, retailers are using reusable cartons, blanket wraps, and other sustainable materials to ship items to consumers.