19 May 2024, 15:50
By Furniture News Oct 24, 2022

The implications of the green furniture movement

In October's Furniture News, we asked members of the trade for their take on furniture's eco-friendly 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? Here, Mark Gannon, MD of Sofa Source, shares his views …

It’s generally agreed that the ‘green’ furniture movement is gaining traction – but what does it really mean to your business and customers? 

There’s no doubt that sustainability has become more relevant to furniture organisations – the importance of sustainability has accelerated, and is only set to become more prevalent. 

There is increasing demand for organisations to operate sustainability, causing less harm to the environment while also producing ‘green’ furniture. This demand is mainly coming from customers, but I think there will be increased pressure from the Government from a legal perspective for organisations to engage in sustainable operations. 

The implications this has on our business are important. We’re analysing our own business model, products and packaging to see how we can implement effective sustainable initiatives. We have a team in place who has been working on eco-packaging for a number of months, and some exciting developments are happening in this area – from using Global Recycled Standard (GRS)-certified recycled plastic, to FSC-certified carton boxes. We understand that there’s a lot more to do to become fully sustainable – but I believe it’s important to first focus on key areas of the business, and then move forward with other sustainability projects based on market insight and what is commercially viable.

From a customer perspective, there’s increased awareness of sustainability credentials and interest in sustainably produced furniture. We’ve seen this with the rise of the eco-conscious consumer. Millennials, followed by Generation Z, will make up more of the market share of furniture in the foreseeable future, and I predict that selling a truly sustainable product will become the industry norm in the next five years.

We recently carried out our own research in this area by interviewing key stakeholders in the industry, and our findings show that there’s increased consumer awareness of what sustainability means. However, being willing to pay for it is another question. The price-versus-sustainability trade-off has a significant influence if the consumer pays more for sustainably produced products – but how much extra are they willing to pay? Other factors such as quality, comfort, style and price are often considered more important. 

Customer demand is of particular importance in the study’s findings. The research suggests that in the next 10 years consumers will expect companies to sell only sustainably produced furniture. The growth in demand may not yet be mainstream, but it is gaining momentum.

The increase in customer demand for eco-friendly furniture is influenced by society, media and education around climate change and sustainability, and there is also an element of virtue signalling to peers through owning sustainable furniture. Customers are asking more questions as to how and where the product is made, and if it has the relevant certifications. 

When it comes to marketing, consumers are calling out large organisations for greenwashing more often. In my opinion, it’s better to admit you’re not engaging in green activities than to market your initiatives as ‘green’ when in fact they’re not. Organisations will get found out eventually, so it’s important to be cautious when telling your customers that you’re ‘green’. That’s why, from our perspective, we want to first deliver the sustainability projects were working on and ensure they’re having a positive impact on the environment before we engage in any marketing activities on this front.

I think it’s going to require a collaborative industry approach for organisations to make a positive impact. There are some innovative and impactful sustainability projects happening, but organisations in isolation can only go so far. I believe for a truly collaborative approach to happen within the industry, governments must also be involved and take some of the responsibility. 

For instance, legislation must be reviewed and updated – particularly in the UK. The UK Fire Resistance (UKFR) BS5852 regulation was enforced in 1988 by law and requires materials such as fabric and foam to be chemically treated. These flame-retardant standards and laws can majorly prohibit furniture from being fully recycled, as the chemical treatments used are difficult to break down, therefore creating a barrier to implementing a circular economy for furniture products. Also, chemically treated furniture products are expensive to dispose of, as careful disposal is required to prevent the release of toxic fumes. Thus, furniture organisations are faced with both economic and environmental barriers as a consequence. This outdated law presents a significant barrier to sustainability practices within the furniture industry, and must be reassessed sooner rather than later.

In terms of product, our findings indicate that technological advancements in the industry to establish and implement circulatory practices, as well as innovation in design, are key. As well as legislative changes, the transition to a circular economy requires new technologies and infrastructures. Advancements in technology can have a big impact on furniture design for the circular economy, enhancing recyclability as well as making the process of disassembly or repurposing more cost-effective. 

There’s clear evidence of design innovation within the industry, such as cradle-to-cradle mattresses. These go beyond the circular economy model, as there’s no waste – they’re made from recycled plastic from the ocean, and the parts are removable and recyclable, increasing the lifespan of the product.  

Other findings show that to make a product truly sustainable, it must be designed using good-quality, long-lasting materials that people will keep. Furniture designed with a lifespan of 20 years has a much lower carbon footprint than the ‘fast furniture’ currently being sold on the market with an average lifespan of five years. Furthermore, incorporating easy-to-disassemble parts in the design process, with the product’s end of life in mind, aids in the circularity of the product – for example, changing the interiors or reupholstering the fabric, making it easily removable from the main frame.

We also found strong evidence that the responsible sourcing of raw materials such as FSC-certified wood, and recycled and renewable materials, is vital to this movement – which is only going to get stronger.

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

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