Despite making a significant contribution to the UK economy, furniture manufacturing suffers from lack of recognition at a political level – states the British Furniture Confederation (BFC), which strives to remedy this by lobbying Government on a range of crucial issues. Here, Jonathan Hindle, chairman of the BFC and president EMEA of contract furniture specialist KI, discusses the opportunities and challenges facing the British furniture sector, and what the confederation is doing to help …
In the month of King Charles III’s coronation – and given the ups and downs created by the likes of Brexit and the pandemic – can you give us a snapshot of where the British furniture industry stands?
As with most industries in the current climate, with consumer spending power and confidence very low, it is challenging – not least due to the pressures of inflation, staff shortages and the cost of energy. We have significant concerns now that the energy subsidy has been removed by the Government.
Do you think the coronation, and the celebrations around it, will create any opportunities for our sector?
Yes, I am sure retailers in particular will leverage the opportunity to celebrate not only the King’s coronation but everything that is great about Britain by promoting British-made furniture.
What are the most pressing challenges currently facing the industry, and how is the BFC trying to address them?
Key challenges for the sector have to be the cost of energy, inflation and a shortage of appropriately skilled human resources. Energy and inflation are outside our control, but regarding the latter, the trade associations are working closely together through the BFC and the Furnishing Industry Education Skills and Training Alliance (FIESTA) in partnership with The Furniture Makers’ Company to address the relationship between employers and training providers.
A new skills co-ordinator has just been appointed to help promote the industry to young people and to support businesses which are looking for apprentices by connecting them to local training providers.
Can you point to any upcoming legislation that is set to impact the sector, for better or worse?
We are keeping a close eye on developments around the revision of the Furniture Fire Safety regulations – much delayed, but which should become clearer later this year. The new Extended Producer Responsibility scheme on packaging and the plastics tax needs bedding in … while the Competition & Markets Authority clampdown on false or misleading green claims is important too. On the horizon also could be more legislation via UK REACH on restricting – and the eventual ban of – commonly used chemicals, and of course on carbon reduction and waste and recycling policies.
What is the most significant change our Government could make in support of the industry?
Helping to develop the workforce of tomorrow with investment in skills and training and ensuring there are appropriate qualifications dedicated to the furniture industry would make a significant difference.
It’s also critical that the Government ensures a level playing field in pursuing any of these policies – they need to be mandatory to be effective. We are broadly in support of green measures – however, they need to be supported by effective enforcement and similar requirements for imports which, again, need to be effectively monitored and enforced to ensure a level playing field.
And finally we would like to see a long-term, funded industrial strategy that supports British furniture manufacturing and encourages more UK-based supplier manufacturers to set up too.
What sets British furniture and bedmakers apart from their international competitors?
Quality, quality, quality. We have some of the best furniture designers and some of the best manufacturers of beds, cabinets and sofas on the planet. Our challenge as an industry is to promote this, along with the industry’s commitment to producing sustainable and environmentally friendly products so that consumers have the choice to buy British and help reduce the UK’s carbon footprint.
How much currency does ‘British made’ have with consumers right now?
We believe it has a lot of currency. It is becoming more and more acceptable to champion Britishness – not just for patriotic reasons but to support the UK manufacturing industry and those who work in it, and also for sound environmental reasons. Retailers are leveraging campaigns such as the National Bed Federation’s Buy from an Approved NBF Member and the BFM’s recently launched Approved Retailer membership.
Should the benefits of buying British be better conveyed to consumers? If so, how?
The British consumer is savvy. They know when they see well-designed, well-made, quality furniture. The campaigns run by the respective trade associations and supported by the BFC serve to remind consumers that buying British means buying durability and quality – ie, value. The more manufacturers and retailers work together to promote these messages, the better.
Can you share any examples of businesses in the domestic furnishings arena that are setting world-class standards?
All of the trade associations encourage excellence through a variety of award schemes. The Furniture Makers’ Company’s guild mark schemes highlight various areas: superb craftmanship through its Bespoke Guild Mark; the Manufacturing Guild Mark is an accolade enjoyed by a select few which undergo vigorous auditing to achieve it; while the Design Guild Mark recognises the skills of our internationally recognised British designers and the manufacturers who invest in them.
The NBF’s Bed Industry Awards manufacturer and component supplier categories are independently judged against 10 demanding criteria, while BFM Approved Manufacturing membership is audited by retailers who are keen to demonstrate transparency in their ESG reporting.
What’s coming up on the BFC’s agenda – both short- and long-term?
We are continuing to work with Government through the All Party Parliamentary Furniture Industry Group (APPFIG) and its chairman, Mark Eastwood, MP, to ensure there is a voice for furniture in the UK at the highest level. This is £41b industry, and as the BFC we have a responsibility to ensuring the sector gets the appropriate recognition and support from Government – particularly helping the companies we represent to gain engagement and financial support for skills and training, qualifications and access to international markets.
Read more about British furniture manufacture in our Best of British feature, in May's issue.