Sustainability in the furniture trade
The word sustainability is something that everyone uses, but does everybody know what it really means? Achieving sustainability requires the understanding of a cradle-to-cradle circular economy concept that only functions if multiple-actors along the entire value chain embrace it. Achieving sustainability means satisfying our current needs only on the condition that future generations are guaranteed of their livelihood. This may sound easy, but the complexity of addressing all parts of the value chain to achieve a truly sustainable economy is where many challenges still lie.
A question of choice and action
It is a question of choice and even action that is required from many actors like government, industry and consumers to achieve true sustainability. Society needs to consider the total environmental and economical savings of promoting, investing and behaving in a way that promotes sustainability. To not do so will result in climate, human and existential threats that will be even more expensive to address.
Industry leaders have a major role to play in providing sustainable furniture alternatives, and consumers have an important role to ease the market-entry of such goods through their purchasing power. Everyone is called on to contribute to achieving the many large and small climate goals. This has ramifications for a multitude of sectors, including that of the furniture industry and furniture trade business.
A matter of cost?
But how can behaviour be changed to influence sustainable the availability of consumer products and choices? Is it knowledge that shapes consumer’s decisions, or is it a matter of cost, or even a question of the options that are available? What blocks adherence to the adoption of the label and what could sustain it? Is it that leading corporate furniture manufacturers are quicker to make change ahead of government, or must they be coerced, like the smaller SMEs that find the implementation of such certification too expensive and overly complex? And essentially, what are the benefits and the return on investment for companies?
The BBI-JU and Horizon 2020 SUSBIND project has published a White Paper based around a survey of furniture industry participants and consumers that addressed multiple aspects of advancing on the framework proposal of the revision of the EU Ecolabel which has been described as a “patchwork of regulatory instruments”.
Many of the questions mentioned above are addressed in the SUSBIND survey responses that provide an insight into the thinking behind the possible behaviour of industry and consumer participants. The survey’s questionnaire considered the many European Union Parliamentary initiatives and research papers already in existence to further understand where the barriers, benefits and opportunities lie for certified sustainable products within the EU.
There are many progressive global furniture and industry manufacturers that are advanced in their sustainability goals. Responsible corporate sustainability governance is essential to influence multiple stakeholders, especially the smaller companies they source from. Increasingly, consumers and industry gatekeepers are demanding sustainable product options. It is here that entrepreneurs are challenged to derive the “right” action from this. The good news that came out of the SUSBIND White Paper survey is that two thirds of European consumers are prepared to pay more for sustainable furniture.
In this regard, there are many opportunities to support sustainability — in the respective companies, in products and production, and along the entire value chain. The furniture trade and retail in general have important key functions here. It is here that decisions are made as to what is offered to the end customer — what, when, where and how. It is here that prices and conditions are set, and decisions are made as to what happens to unusable and expired goods. This is where joint government and industry initiatives can make a difference to support a circular economy and the standards set out in eco-labels.
An essential element for the furniture industry is to support sustainable decisions that can make a climate positive difference by deciding: what materials to use and source; how the product can be designed and conceived to assist up-cycling at the end-of-use date; extend the lifespan of the product; demand the repairability of products; and increase the recyclable potential.
On this subject, EU specifications and targets — such as an eco-label — certainly can be useful aids, or act as a guideline. However, the innovative power and freedom of companies and industries, as well as competitiveness should not be prevented or restricted. An eco-label used throughout Europe would have to appeal to the customer and the advantages would have to be communicated accordingly in public campaigns. It would also need to be supported by all European countries.
Of course, every company within the furniture sector has many other possibilities to act sustainably, for example: emission-free buildings and vehicle fleets; sourcing from regional supply chains, if possible; further training of employees on these topics; the use of recycled and natural materials, and much more. Thinking and working in cycles — cradle to cradle — should be defined as a goal to take and reach.
SUSBIND is a good example of an EU project that helps seed and implement sustainable concepts for formaldehyde-free bio-based binders for building products and furniture. The SUSBIND White Paper survey shows that industry, trade and end customers increasingly are thinking and acting more sustainably which is completely in line with the objectives of the EU Green Deal. It also shows that many people are not even aware of the health risks that some furniture and building products contain.
Europe and products of the future
Therefore, it is also an imperative for us as representatives of the furniture trade and EU projects to deal with sustainability in all its possibilities and opportunities, but also to address the challenges. Achieving this is not about one big step, but about many small steps that can and must be taken by all parties. A good way to promote the Ecolabel would be to provide more educational campaigns across Europe to make the symbol and what it stands for recognizable. An overwhelming 78% of respondents said this. Additionally, support should be given to smaller companies – suppliers, producers and even waste companies – across the entire value chain to enable the Ecolabel criteria to be adopted and valued. Consumers also need to demand more Ecolabel products.
We are still at the beginning of a long journey. Achieving this is a massive, complex endeavour that will require less talk, more action, and even flexibility, to ensure that the road becomes a wheel of cradle-to-cradle circular sustainability. We at SUSBIND, FENA and RTDS will make our contribution. Together we can do it!
The final version of the SUSBIND Industry-led White-Paper for EU Ecolabel Criteria for Wooden Furniture Revision is now available here.