Sustainable Choices in Workplace Furniture

How do we make measured decisions in furniture consultancy that support and fulfil sustainability initiatives?

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Fritha Selwyn Jones

Written by

Fritha Selwyn-Jones

Contents

As brands strive to reduce their environmental impact, one opportunity might be overlooked: the workplace. Minor choices in workplace design, like energy-conserving furnishing options and long-lasting materials, lead to significant and consistently positive passive impacts throughout day-to-day operations.

Sustainability is one of the essential cornerstones of workplace design, and it’s our responsibility as furniture consultants to provide the most effective solutions that support environmental stewardship. Read this article to understand the eco-friendly furnishing choices we make that support our and our clients’ sustainability values.

The Rise of Eco-friendly Materials

When designing for sustainability, we need to consider the characteristics of the materials we use. How can we reduce environmental impact through materials? Selecting recycled materials, seeking out long warranties, avoiding harmful components, and choosing local manufacturers and suppliers all have a positive impact on the carbon footprint of our furnishing choices.

Popular Sustainable Materials

The natural world is miraculous, and combined with innovations in environmentally considerate material production, we have access to some incredible green furniture materials that are strong, durable, aesthetically pleasing, and highly sustainable. Identifying these materials is the first step in sustainable workplace furnishing.

Material

Characteristics

Use in Workplace Furnishing

Wood

FSC and PEFC-certified pine, oak, and beech

Workstations, chair bases

Bamboo

Fast-growing, reduces carbon footprint

Modular shelving, desks, storage items

Natural Fabrics

Wool, hemp, and linen

Upholstery, acoustic panels

Steel and Aluminum

Strong, recyclable materials

Chair bases, desk frames

Recycled Materials

Various entire items or components of items

Chairs, tables, storage units, soft furnishings


Why do these sustainable materials make good choices for furniture manufacture?

  • Bamboo can grow up to 91cm within 24 hours, making it one of the fastest-growing plants in the world and excellent for high-volume furniture production.

  • Bamboo absorbs five times more carbon dioxide than the equivalent volume in trees and releases 35% more oxygen, making it excellent for carbon sequestration.

  • Harvesting bamboo does not kill the plant when done correctly, meaning it can remain in a continuous cycle of growth and harvesting.

  • One cubic metre of wood can store roughly one tonne of CO2 making wood furniture an excellent carbon sink—meaning it’s capable of storing carbon absorbed during the growth of the source trees.

  • Over 90% of end-of-life steel is recycled making it one of the most recyclable materials. It can be recycled infinitely without losing its properties.

  • When recycled, steel saves up to 74% of the energy otherwise required to produce new steel from raw materials.

  • Roughly 75% of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today due to its high recyclability rate.

  • When recycled, aluminium saves 95% of the energy otherwise required to make it new from scratch.

When developing a furnishing concept, we always start by focusing on reuse, repurposing, recycling, and recovering to minimise the effects of our work on energy usage.

Innovations in Sustainable Materials

Advocates for environmental stewardship are always creating new, ingenious materials that protect our environment and communities and present incredible benefits to workplace designers.

Material

Description

Characteristics

Use in Workplace Furnishing

Mushroom Mycelium

Fungal root structure

Fire-resistant, can grow into any shape

Acoustic panels, insulation

AirCarbon™

Biodegradable polymer made from captured carbon

Used in carbon-negative furniture

Chairs, stools

Cork

Bark of cork oak tree

Renewable, biodegradable, lightweight, insulating

Flooring, bulletin boards, seating

Hempcrete

Composite of hemp fibres and lime

Strong, lightweight, carbon-negative, good insulator

Partition walls, desks, shelving

Recycled Ocean Plastic

Plastic waste recovered from oceans

Reduces ocean pollution, durable, versatile

Chairs, desks, storage items

Biodegradable Polymers

Polymers that decompose naturally

Compostable, low environmental impact

Desk accessories, seating, storage units

Wool Composite

Blended wool fibres

Naturally fire-resistant, biodegradable, sound-absorbing

Acoustic panels, upholstery, rugs

Reclaimed Wood

Repurposed previously used wood

Reuses existing wood, unique aesthetic, durable

Desks, tables, shelving units

Paper Composite

Material made from recycled paper

Made from recycled paper, lightweight, strong

Table tops, shelves, decorative panels


It’s our responsibility as furniture consultants to stay informed and abreast of the continuous developments in sustainable materials innovation so we can always offer the best, most effective solutions.

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Crafting Durable and Lasting Pieces

Creating furniture that stands the test of time, in a busy office, used by multiple different team members over the years, surviving office refurbishments, and providing the same level of quality for a long time, means fewer repairs and replacements. Fewer repairs and replacements mean less demand for materials and energy-consuming processes, for green alternatives in workplace furniture.

We favour this approach of investing in high-quality, highly suitable pieces of furniture that will set a business up for years to come. So, how does this support sustainability initiatives?

  1. Reducing the need for frequent replacements reduces the demand for raw materials to manufacture new furniture.

  2. Better-made furniture lasts longer because it depletes in quality more slowly. This means fewer parts replacements and less demand to produce components.

  3. Longer-lasting furniture means less waste as items don’t need to be discarded for a long time, reducing the volume of material that ends up in landfills.

  4. By investing in potentially a higher cost early on, the need for more frequent later purchases is eliminated, and this supports sustainable consumer behaviour.

  5. A reduction in demand for raw materials reduces disruption to natural ecosystems due to activities like mining and resource extraction.

  6. Sustainable furniture built for longevity is usually made from materials that can be recycled and recovered, reducing that which leaves the material lifecycle.

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Impact of Furniture on Carbon Footprint

The design stage determines 80% of the environmental impacts of a product, so it’s vital sustainability is established early on. It’s also critical we, as furniture consultants, can identify products that are truly a good fit for sustainability in workplace design.

How is carbon footprint measured?

  1. Define the scope: determine whether the assessment is cradle-to-grave, cradle-to-gate, or cradle-to-cradle.

  2. Conduct a lifecycle assessment
    1. Setting objectives and defining parameters

    2. Collecting data on inputs and emissions

    3. Evaluating environmental impacts

    4. Analysing results and interpretation

  3. Data collection, which considers:
    1. Raw material use

    2. Manufacturing processes

    3. Transportation

    4. Use of end product

    5. End of life (disposal)

  4. Converting data into greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with standardised measurements

  5. Cross-check the assessment against recognised standards
    1. ISO 14040 and ISO 14044: International standards for conducting lifecycle assessments

    2. PAS 2050: A specification for the assessment of the life cycle GHG emissions of goods and services

    3. Greenhouse Gas Protocol: Provides guidelines for GHG accounting and reporting

  6. Third-party verification for credibility

How do furniture consultants assess items to reliably choose those with the smallest carbon footprint? There are certain indicators we need to look out for.

Indicator

Evidence

Certifications

Products might have official certifications such as FSC, Energy Star, and Fairtrade. Some may have unique certification numbers that can be cross-checked.

Material Sourcing

Datasheets detailing the type of materials and sources may be available. Suppliers may provide documentation showing sustainable sourcing procedures.

Longevity

Warranty information will show product lifetime expectancy. Product testing results will attest to quality assurance.

Recyclability

Documentation should show take-back schemes or recycling offered by the manufacturer. Product composition information should detail which components should be recycled and how.

Origin of Production

Manufacturing facility address and transport emission data should reveal details about distances travelled.


Ultimately, a furniture consultant needs to be able to seek out, identify, and source furniture that aligns with sustainability responsibilities. This is the promise we make to our clients and the value we bring to workplaces that prioritise environmental stewardship. Read more about how we approach sustainability through workplace furnishing in our blog.

Published on

May 29, 2024