#045 / 2003

sustain (transitive verb) provide with the basic neccesities required to support or preserve life, livelihood, or existence

(Canadian Oxford Dictionary)


Sense, size and sustainability

The "s" word seems to be everywhere - employed in right-wing rhetoric and environmental entreaty, for small groups and large. Not satisfied with its clean spare form, the word prefers to promenade with its appendages: sustainable or sustainability. It does not discern as it touts for anyone or anything, betraying its Latin ancestry sustinére, to hold up.

These etymological musings result from the recent repositioning of "sustainability" on the furniturelink Web site. Sustainability within a furniture design and manufacturing context did not take kindly to being narrowly compartmentalized. On the selection menu, the word overlaps [safety] in regard to air pollution; challenges [design], requiring a distinct entry (because surely all good design is sustainable?); pops up in [ecoforestry] and [wood supply] to further annoy. And to complicate the situation more, the supremacy of sustainable now competes with recent upstart words and phrases: green design, bio-design, design for the environment, eco-design, clean technology, cradle-to-cradle design, life-cycle assessment, ecological design, environmentally friendly design.

No matter which moniker is favoured, a relationship exists between sustainability and size. furniturelink has consistently advocated the development of smaller-scale enterprises (SMEs) over multi-national enterprises (MNEs) because SMEs return more to their local community. Environmentally speaking, SMEs save on energy for transportation and respond quickly to pressure from local citizens concerned about the planet. MNEs that source their production worldwide are not as susceptible to people power. For example, China, which is a favoured manufacturing location for furniture MNEs, is reported to have minimal health and safety regulations as "Most machines lack safety guards or mechanical systems to prevent workers' hands from touching fast-moving blades and saws." [1]

Though furniturelink supports local SME production, it would be inaccurate to state SMEs are more earth friendly than MNEs. Some contemporary furniture SMEs have progressive environmental programs (Green Home Furniture Project, Trannon). Some contemporary furniture MNEs do likewise, though these efforts seem to be limited to specific product lines in the office furniture manufacturing sector (Brandrud, Herman Miller, Lamults, Teknion).



C10 Dining chair is made from steam-pressed green ash woodland thinnings.


Why is the industry so reluctant to be proactive about the survival of our planet? A clue may be found in our society's addiction to mindless consumerism with little thought about the "big picture." This self-centred attitude limits the development of collective actions that are required for sustainable solutions to flourish. The "me first" focus can be countered by designers assisting SMEs to develop sustainable goals. Designers can do this by specifying materials and processes that are more environmentally benign, resist obsolescence and incorporate ease of disassembly for recycling.

The consumer is also key to the solution. For example, restaurant chains in British Columbia have been forced to drop farmed salmon from their menus because of consumer resistance. How long will it take for unsustainable furniture to be left gathering dust on the retail floor?

To paraphrase Marie De Vichy-Chaconne, the distance to sustainability for manufacturers is nothing; it is only the first step that is difficult. The first step to becoming sustainable can be as simple as upgrading lighting to reduce energy consumption (and save money). Or the first step could be a complete analysis of the company's activities that can be broken down into manageable tasks for future implementation. In practical terms much of this work will involve replacing harmful materials and processes with more benign ones. furniturelink provides a solutions chart to assist in the substitution process.

Designers will probably develop and prioritize the steps using professional design methodology. Manufacturers may want to refer to the following resources. (Note: links updated 2018)

Because of the ethical nature of taking these steps to substainability, it follows that you should communicate to suppliers, retailers and customers your commitment to the environment. Even though MNEs have slick costly PR departments to promote their environmental efforts, SMEs have a greater "believability" factor because of their close personal relationship with clients.

SMEs that take on the ethical challenge will be able to add more "s" words to their processes and promotion - sustainability, suitability, saleability . . . success.

eco-labelling proposal

The average household furniture manufacturer in Canada employs only 23 production workers (NAICS 33712, 2001). These SMEs lack the financial resources of large corporations to develop sustainability programs. Government should support an eco-labelling program by financially assisting smaller producers to develop in-house environmental policies (MNEs could be charged a sliding-scale fee). The scheme could be voluntary and graduated, allowing each manufacturer to get involved at their comfort level. Standards in three categories should be included.

  • Bronze: Based on materials and processes for individual products
  • Silver: Based on bronze requirements plus recycling and disassembly
  • Gold: Based on bronze and silver requirements plus facility operation and corporate ethics

Each category would rate the product/company for compliance on a percentage scale, with 50 percent as minimum for qualification. Participants in the program would be able to publish their ratings in product information to generate public awareness and acceptance.

[1] Salt Lake Tribune

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