‘The only thing that is constant is change’, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said around 2500 years ago. This statement is as true today as it was then. It’s also particularly relevant to sustainability. With a growing environmental awareness worldwide, companies are making a constant effort to change and reduce their environmental impact – and the furniture industry is no different.
But how is the increased focus on environment and sustainability shaping our present and future?
How can furniture make a sustainable difference?
The importance at conception
A sustainable approach starts at the very beginning of a product’s creation – in the design process. A simple design that uses few, but durable, high-quality materials and requires less energy to produce helps lay the foundations for a sustainable product (aspects that are part of the Danish Design DNA). A product that is designed to last and that can be re-used, recycled or upcycled is more sustainable and reduce waste.
More sustainable materials
Sourcing is a vital issue, and while no material is perfect, some are more sustainable than others. Using organic raw materials that are readily available (and easily extractable), don’t have to travel far, have a high-recyclability and are easily repurposed are crucial in yielding a low environmental impact.
Craftsmen have appreciated its qualities for hundreds of years, and wood has been the natural choice for many famous Danish design classics. Wood is one of the most readily available and naturally renewable materials (dependent on type – tropical woods such as mahogany are very different from faster growing, local woods such as pine or oak). Another benefit is that there is much less little waste when making wooden products, and the waste is usually 100% biodegradable. FSC (or their equivalent such as PEFC) certificates are now used to ensure that wood originates from forests that are responsibly managed for regeneration and the growth of new trees. A standard principle is that foresters put back more trees into the environment than they remove.
Environmentally friendly textiles and fabrics are becoming a prominent part of the furniture industry. While materials such as wool (being 100% natural, readily available and biodegradable) have been used for centuries, more innovative solutions are now being introduced. Kvadrat’s new textile Revise is a prime example with a yarn made from PET plastic bottles. This is a massive step towards a sustainable future – using a commonplace waste, often destined for landfill and repurposing it for new material.
Avoiding toxic substances
Furniture production can involve the use of harmful chemicals, with the finishes, adhesives and treatments used on furniture emitting gasses even after leaving the production. This process is called off-gassing and poses a risk to humans and the environment. For sustainable furniture, all materials used should therefore be free of formaldehyde and other flame-retardants and instead use low VOC or water-based foams, glues and finishes. The lower VOC content, the better.
Local sourcing of materials
Assessing each part of a product’s supply chain has always been a high priority for businesses as a cost-saving exercise. This often led to complex sourcing with emerging countries providing reduced production costs. However, more recently companies are in reverse gear, using shorter supply chains and local sourcing.
While rising international costs might have a part to play, as we’ve seen from moving production back to Denmark; it has greatly reduced energy usage and carbon emissions – as well as providing control over where our materials are extracted from.
For years, single-use plastics such as styrofoam and airbags have been the norm for packaging furniture. This is changing. Recyclable and recycled packaging are becoming popular, as well as light, biodegradable materials which reduce energy waste in transportation and natural waste at the end of use. So what does the future hold? Possibly mushrooms. Ecocradle is a new fungi-based packaging that can be grown in about a week.
What’s next for sustainability?
No single industry can address the multiple issues involved with sustainability and the interdependencies that are part of this hugely complex system. It’s why collaboration between companies on a global scale is such an important goal.
However, we are seeing a shared agenda and awareness towards innovative solutions focused on minimising waste and toxicity, regenerating energy and natural resources, and an increasing collective awareness of our individual and business impact on the environment. For us, this is certainly a source of confidence and it’s helping shape our own sustainability goals – with strong partnerships and learning how best to meaningfully shape our future.