The Australasian Furnishing Industry Research and Development Institute Limited (Furntech-AFRDI) has developed a new Sustainability Standard 150 for commercial furniture. As the Institute’s JULIAN RIDGERS explains, the new Standard sets a benchmark for all people who make, specify or use commercial furniture.
In the beginning… to quote a time-worn phrase… the Australian furniture manufacturing industry was spiralling downwards into a rather parlous state, with a majority of local manufacturers going down the route of importing components for local assembly as a means of containing costs and keeping their heads above the rising tide of fully-imported furniture.
Shrinking employment within the local industry was an inevitable outcome of such an approach to manufacturing – the human cost in jobs lost over the past five years probably amounts to 20,000 skilled people.
But in the process of clinging to economic life, few manufacturers considered the consequences of their new-found methods of manufacture: everyone was doing it, it must be right. In the short term, there can be little dispute about the way much of the furniture industry does business; in the long term, there must be concerns both about the ongoing viability of such a process, in terms of preserving Australian jobs, and concerns about the broader environmental implications and sustainability of such practices.
Our company, AFRDI (the Australasian Furnishing Industry Research and Development Institute Limited), trading as Furntech, started to have concerns about the balance between off-shore and on-shore manufacturing some years ago. As a peak industry body, Furntech-AFRDI tests and certifies a wide range of furnishings for the Australian and New Zealand markets, and writes some of the Standards which in effect ensure that furnishings meet certain performance levels with regard to strength, durability and fitness for purpose.
While our organisation is concerned with developing and administering Standards, and ensuring that they maintain their relevance through regular reviews and updates, we’re not flag wavers, as such, but more the quiet back-room boys of the industry.
Nevertheless, a decision was made three years ago for Furntech-AFRDI to develop a Standard for sustainable manufacturing practices within the furniture industry. Researchers were engaged to scope the initial Standard, and then came the lengthy and painstaking process of putting meat on the bare bones to produce something that had the appearance and function of a proper Standard. Inevitably, there was a great deal of comparison between what Furntech-AFRDI was producing, and what others around the world had attempted in answering many of the same fundamental questions.
In 2008, the long gestation period was drawing to a close, and the emerging Standard was trialled with a handful of volunteer companies to iron out the inevitable glitches that come with any document of considerable complexity.
And a Sustainability Standard really is a multifaceted document. In essence, it seeks to apply metrics to a broad and highly abstract concept: that of sustainability.
Furntech-AFRDI accepts that its new Standard won’t be set in concrete. It represents a line in the sand, a best attempt to make tangible a nebulous but nonetheless essential concept. As the world’s understanding of sustainability gains more subtlety, so too will our Standard.
ELEMENTS OF THE STANDARD
The Standard also examines how the factory of the future will operate. It points the way to the desirable practice of co-generating power from manufacturing waste, to minimising use of water, and shunning the practice of dumping toxic waste in waterways. There’s also attention paid to the question of transport – the conveying of raw materials across the globe to China or Pakistan, and the return of semi-finished articles to Australia. It used to be that this long supply chain was deemed part of the cost of doing business. Under sustainability considerations, the carbon cost of such transport practices must be examined. To partially address this question, manufacturers will be encouraged to pool their shipments to ensure full ships, and similarly, at the local level, to use the power of IT to pool delivery runs to ensure trucks don’t travel half empty.
Even such seemingly mundane issues as the packaging of furniture are addressed in the Standard. It is simply wasteful to fully wrap a chair in cardboard and plastic, when often a re-usable throw-over protective rug or a re-usable fibreglass crate will do.
Many small parts can make a strong and powerful whole, and we feel such is the case with the Furntech-AFRDI Sustainability Standard 150. We confidently expect specifiers and architects, and the government and commercial tendering sector will adopt the Standard, because it is a necessary tool to ensure that wasteful manufacturing practices are changed for the betterment of the whole community.
At a practical level, Furntech-AFRDI expects that furnishings submitted for testing and certification to gain Furntech-AFRDI’s Blue Tick (for strength and durability) will then go on to be assessed to gain the Furntech-AFRDI Green Tick. Any furnishings having this dual qualification will be perceived in the marketplace as being genuinely superior. In a crowded Australian marketplace, they will also be strongly differentiated from the largely untested flood of furniture imports.
There may well be other changes arising from adoption of the Sustainability Standard. In the US, for example, consideration of the carbon footprint costing process already has encouraged several major furniture manufacturers to re-open a mothballed factory, in one case, and to establish from the ground up, in another case, a new factory to manufacture within the US to save on direct transport costs and reduce the carbon footprint component. Direct parallels between the US and Australian markets may be hard to draw, but it’s an interesting proposition.
Another ‘imponderable’ is the reaction of the consumer marketplace to furniture that can be shown to be environmentally sustainable. Such an item almost certainly will attract a premium, but some people have already demonstrated they are prepared to pay that premium because they feel good about ‘saving the planet’.
It is certain that all furniture manufactured under the aegis of the Sustainability Standard will cost more, as a reflection of better quality, but the return will be a positive step towards a cleaner environment, more responsible use of raw materials, a reduction in the use of sweated labour in under-developed countries, and a cut in energy use: but the bottom line will be the production of furniture that will be stronger, more durable, recyclable and almost certainly won’t be discarded as landfill when it’s just a few years old.
SUSTAINABILITY STANDARD: MARKET RESPONSE
How does the marketplace consider the new Furntech-AFRDI Sustainability Standard 150? Below are the views of some leading industry representatives:
GREG NORRIS, general manager, Tomako (manufacturers of steel chair and table frames, and table supports): The Furntech-AFRDI Standard appeals in that it has three levels, meaning that companies can gain entry at an achievable level, and then work their way up to the higher levels. The three levels make the Standard inclusive.
The Standard is also very thorough in its approach to measuring sustainability. In addition, its application is fee-based on quality, and is not related to turnover or production, so there is only a single cost to be met. We’re also pleased that it addresses the question of VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
ANDREW ELMES, national sales and marketing manager, Caford Australia (component suppliers to the office chair and furniture industry): The AFRDI 150 Sustainability Standard is a robust Standard that ensures sound product fundamentals regarding sustainability and environmental impact for the commercial furniture sector. The three-stage/level approach relates directly to what members of the industry were requesting at the time of the formation of the Standard. It allows all sectors of the commercial furniture industry to achieve sensible goals for the development of a more sustainable and environmentally sound product.
The Standard has a clear focus on sustainability through the use of elements such as material selection, fitness for purpose and end-of-life scenarios.
ROGER WARD, sales and marketing manager, Systems Supply: As local manufacturers and assemblers, we are very conscious that our competitive advantage is our ability to deliver products which are responsive to market needs, and at the same time set product quality, lifecycle, product stewardship and sustainability standards. The new Standard helps us meet these targets.
NICK NOBLE, product development manager, Workspace Commercial Furniture: The AFRDI and Furntech names are well known and respected, and I think that is one of the great strengths of the new Standard.
Julian Ridgers is marketing and membership manager with Furntech-AFRDI. He has worked extensively in radio and television for more than 25 years, and operates a public relations and marketing company. Maintaining a lifelong interest in building, he’s spent the past six years studying architecture, now completing a masters degree, and commencing a masters degree in photography. He currently works part-time for Furntech-AFRDI as the company’s marketing and membership manager.
Top image courtesy Workspace Commercial Furniture.