25 May 2024, 18:18
By Andy Stockwell Oct 03, 2022

Responding to demand for eco-friendly furniture

In October's Furniture News, we asked members of the trade for their take on furniture'seco-fornedly movement, and what it meant for their business. Do consumers understand the implications of the processes involved in delivering sustainable furniture – and are they willing to pay for it? Where does the greenwashing stop, and might the green agenda require more of a cross-industry approach? Andy Stockwell, senior retail manager at Gardiner Haskins offers his take …

It’s not a new topic. In 2010, the ‘green’ agenda was gaining traction, products generally were starting to come through, and the public was becoming more aware. Then the financial crash happened, and everyone was more concerned with how far the pound in their pocket would stretch than they were about how much plastic was in the oceans, or what a +0.5% increase in global temperatures might mean.

Since then, Brexit, conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, a bizarre US presidency and a global pandemic have grabbed headlines and disrupted thinking. Now it’s a cost of living crisis and, once again, our spending power is the key topic of conversation.

All the while, across continents, temperatures rise and the earth burns, and whilst presidents, wars and pandemics come and go, climate change continues its relentless march.

It’s no longer going under the radar, though. With the UK Government setting out ambitious targets to combat global warming, industry is starting to take action. Solar farms are springing up in fields across the UK, electric cars are ever more evident on our roads. and bed and furniture manufacturers are introducing increasingly eco-friendly materials, fabrics and processes into their products and manufacturing.

Whether consumers are really engaged with the green scene is open to debate. Any time the much-revered David Attenborough opens his mouth on the subject, there is a pique of interest and awareness, and awards are handed out to the trailblazers bidding, in their own small ways, to save the planet. 

The man in the street sympathises if asked, but still needs to feed his kids and put fuel into the family 4x4 to get them to school. His first question when he’s buying a new sofa or bed is not ‘How many plastic bottles sourced from the ocean go into producing this sofa?’, it’s ‘How much is it?’ (ie ‘Can I afford it?’) and ‘Is it value for money?’

Value for money is a subjective thing, of course. There is a price to pay for quality workmanship, quality materials, great service and reputation. Equally, in what has been a throwaway society, some consumers are willing to sacrifice some of these factors for lesser products, knowing full well they don’t intend them to last beyond the next fashion trend.

However, with younger consumers coming into the market, awareness of the green agenda is growing. Younger generations are far more aware and engaged with the implications of climate change than their parents ever were. They will be the ones most greatly affected, after all. Finding out the furniture you like is ecologically friendly is becoming less of a pleasant-if-inconsequential surprise, and more of a prerequisite in the decision-making process.

This gives manufacturers something of a dilemma. As with any new process or innovation, there is a cost involved. And while the long-term benefits seem obvious, in the short term the traditional consumer still places price and value for money over eco credentials. Can manufacturers afford to invest in new, innovative, climate-friendly products and processes, particularly when these things are not driving current demand?

It’s a gamble, but one which the industry has little option but to adopt. It took Tesla 18 years to turn a profit. Now it is finally flying high on the crest of the sustainability wave – but it could so easily have gone wrong. Furniture manufacturers need (maybe should even be forced) to adopt a greener way of working and produce a greener product. But will customers buy enough to make the businesses themselves sustainable?

Maybe the answer is to ensure the only products available meet these criteria. If all manufacturers have to meet minimum standards and all end-products are the same, consumers will have no choice but to purchase said products and pay the price, whatever that may be. That should hopefully lead to green products and manufacture becoming mainstream and prices coming down. In the meantime, the industry innovators such as Harrison Spinks, Hypnos and Ashwood Designs continue to lead the way, and should be applauded for their efforts.

There are, of course, many ways the industry at all levels can improve its green performance. What is really needed is cross-industry collaboration and a joined-up strategy from governments to encourage and support those making a real difference. Unfortunately, scepticism around global warming still exists, and there are those who believe individuals, and even the whole movement, is guilty of ‘greenwashing’, scaremongering, and then ‘resolving the issue’ for profit. 

Whilst there are those within the industry who choose to deny climate change is happening, there will always be opportunities for the greenwashing accusation to be laid at others’ doors. The fight against climate change is everyone’s fight, and working together the only way to win it.

Read more responses to the fast-evolving issue in October's Furniture News.

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