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monthlies OnOffice July9

16 Feb 2011

With seemingly every furniture company making bold claims about sustainability and their eco-credentials it can be tricky to separate the genuine from the spurious. So how can buyers be sure their purchases will not harm the planet?

EPDs, or environmental product declarations, can be a bit tricky to get your head around. Basically, they provide information about the environmental impact of that shiny new chair, desk or lamp you are lusting after. But which EPDs can be trusted? And what should an EPD look like?  Martin Hoenle, design consultant and editor of, favours schemes that give precise figures instead of bandying about vague claims. “My experience is it’s quite difficult to get hard numbers. I always try to speak numbers because it gives a benchmark, a comparison to the rest of the industry. Things have to be measurable,” he said, adding: “If companies have to provide numbers they take it more seriously.” Take this as an example of a vague eco-claim: “All of the wood used in our products is FSC certified.” Assuming that this is true, the immediate question that the purchaser needs to ask is how much wood is in the product? If the product is only 20% wood then why aren’t we being told about the environmental performance of other components?

Another no-no is the single-issue claim such as “I am carbon neutral” or “I am recyclable.” To which the answer should probably be “Oh, are you now? And how many orangutans were turfed out of their rainforest home to source you? How toxic are you? What’s your lifespan?” Getting one thing right does not make up for getting six other things very, very wrong.

But at the same time, getting one thing wrong and six other things right may be OK. Which is why there is substantial backing within the industry for EPDs. John Miller, from the contract manufacturers MARK, based in Cornwall, says product declarations allow buyers to make an informed choice. “A customer can see what they are getting, and if they see that a product has a high carbon footprint they might think, ‘Well OK so now I know that, but it has so many other good things going for it: it’s durable, it’s going to last me 30 years.’”

Many manufacturers and designers want to do the right thing. And they want their customers to ask them to do the right thing, so that their competitors will also have to do the right thing and everyone can compete on a level playing field. To this end InterfaceFLOR recently launched its Let’s Be Clear campaign. Lynne Gawthorpe, the company’s UK and Ireland marketing director, said: “EPDs present a list of the scientific facts about a product’s environmental impact at each stage of its life, and it is this indisputable transparency that has fuelled the campaign. We’re now urging companies to strive for complete transparency, both when it comes to their business operations and their products, and are encouraging consumers to demand EPDs on all products. This is the only way to combat greenwashing: by presenting just the facts.”

For large manufacturers the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) runs a reputable certification scheme known in the trade as “the ISO14000s”. They require manufacturers to answer an extremely detailed questionnaire supplying information about resource use, energy consumption, production processes and greenhouse gas emissions. The point is to provide like-for-like figures for comparison – so that buyers can compare the carbon footprint/toxicity/recycleability of two similar products. The most rigorous certification involves producing a detailed report about the product line and having that report verified by an independent third party.

But specifiers need to remember that simply filling out the ISO questionnaire doesn’t make their product environmentally friendly. Making manufacturers write down their emissions and resource use in black and white is likely to act as a wake-up call, but specifiers still need to hold the manufacturers feet to the fire to ensure that they go the extra mile to improve their environmental performance. Adrian Thornberry, the UK manager of Thinking Ergonomix, says that ISO14001 certification is sometimes used quite cynically, and companies should only use it as a starting point. “People say ‘we are green, we are ISO14001, you can trust us’ without going any further, but most companies can hit 14001 fairly easily.”

Daniel Gay, the sales and marketing director at contract furniture supplier Coexistence, says his customers are increasingly demanding environmental product declarations, and their awareness is growing. Whereas 10 or 15 years ago a buyer’s only environmental commitment may have been to boycott rainforest hardwood, “nowadays they will walk in and say, ‘We don’t want any chrome, we don’t want any fibreglass, we don’t want certain types of foam.’” Because now they know that chrome is a scarce resource, it can’t be recycled and the production process is highly polluting. And that the chemical processes used to manufacture fibreglass and some foams are also hazardous to the environment.

For small contract manufacturers such as MARK, third-party verification is too costly but the company is still striving for absolute transparency about its products. For Miller the key to achieving this is local production. “If a company is sourcing its products from all over the world you have to question what that company’s influence is on those factories. What MARK tries to do is have as much influence as possible. We know how much glue is used, what the wages are, all kinds of minutiae that you can only really know if you are close to your suppliers,” he said.

The issue that specifiers have been slowest to catch on to is end of life – after all, what fun is there to be had imagining your shiny new possession all used up and ready for the scrapheap? But the success of one or two key products is beginning to create awareness of this issue. The key to buying a product that has a low impact on the environment at the end of its life is how easily it can be taken apart. Pli, Piiroinen, Orangebox and MARK are some standout designers in this field.

Piiroinen’s Compos chair, designed by Samuli Naamanka, has steel legs and a compostable seat made from linen and corn starch. And the Ara task chair by Orangebox has cradle-to-cradle certification.

All of Pli’s products are 100% recyclable because they can be dismantled into separate materials. The company’s founder, Christopher Pett, said: “For us the first rule of environmentally friendly design is that you mustn’t make landfill and you mustn’t make things that can’t be refurbished or reused.” Pli operates a “take back” scheme. Its latest product on the market is the Pennyfields chair. The legs are powder coated steel, the seat is bamboo. If the seat wears out it can easily be detached and replaced. “The legs are bombproof, they will last forever, and the legs can be recoated so the product will look as good as new,” said Pett.

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