Introduction Defining sustainability can be challenging for the contemporary furniture designer/manufacturer. The ubiquitous term can mean social responsibility, use of non-polluting technologies and certified materials, employment fairness and more. Though these "manufacturing with a conscience" ideals can't be argued with, often they can be difficult to implement on a regular basis. To encompass these practices we must monitor the production cycle from raw material acquisition through to manufacture, end use and final disposal.
History In the 1970s, E.F. Schumacher and George McRobie originated the concept of designers using "appropriate" technology to develop products to meet the needs of local communities and economies. Despite their pioneering work, 50 years later our use of technology remains largely "inappropriate" as consumerism, not environmental concerns, continues to primarily motivate product development.
Future A 2012 report by the Network for Business Sustainability claims Canadian SMEs (small and medium size enterprises) "create more than 80 per cent of new jobs in Canada every year, but they also create 80 per cent of industry’s negative environmental impacts and more than 60 per cent of commercial waste. Clearly, conversations about sustainable business must include SMEs."
What drives designers and companies to create more products? Does the world need another chair design? The design community needs to discuss these issues within the larger context of the planet's environmental health and implement practices at the drawing board that reduce waste, emissions, energy, toxicity and dangerous work practices.
Wood materials Designers can effect change by specifying locally-sourced timber. This win-win situation benefits the environment and the economy — on the environmental front designers and manufacturers need sustainably managed forests, and from the economic aspect they need access to a wide range of soft/hardwood species and eco-friendly wood panels that only a diverse and well-managed forest base can provide.
To evaluate what constitutes "sustainable" timber, corporate, environment and government organizations established competing standards of "certification." furniturelink supports the rigorous standards developed by Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) with the participation of local communities.
In a report for the Ecoforestry Institute, Cam Brewer (currently principal at Restraint Consulting, Vancouver) stated, "Meaningful certification is about supporting a diversity of human and non-human uses of the forest, about providing a broad range of economic benefits, and about fostering strong human communities . . . Local manufacturers that create high-value wood products are able to reduce the pressure for unsustainable levels of timber extraction. By carefully valuing each log, by developing markets for under-utilized species, and by incorporating 'character' wood (with knots, bug stain, or other 'flaws'), higher value can be extracted from a lower volume of cut. This will help create employment, diversity, and stability in local communities, and break the dependency on single-product commodity mills."
Other materials Unfortunately accreditation schemes like FSC don't encompass the whole range of materials involved in furniture manufacturing — adhesives, finishes, upholstery foams, edging tapes, laminates, packaging etc. Monitoring the complete Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of products requires a more comprehensive set of controls. These can range from keeping a simple ring-binder that lists (using "common sense" criteria) the energy and material consumed at each step in the manufacturing process to using a sophisticated LCA software program (see below). As a first step furniturelink provides a buy green directory of raw materials and supplies with reduced environmental impacts.
The American Center for Life Cycle Assessment provides a list of certified LCA practitioners, the Industrial Designers Society of America an eight-page PDF booklet with an overview of eco-design best practices and the revised edition of their Okala Guide.
The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) promotes its Level™ furniture certification standard, implemented by third-party organizations such as Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) and NSF.
Huntington, Vermont–based Earthshift, Inc., offers a demo version of its well-established SimaPro LCA software.
To see a list of furniturelink feature articles about sustainability, use this link and then click twice "subject" in the index header.
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