Furniture Trends: The Green Scene

Maximizing natural light can reduce energy usage, bring the outside in, and even improve employee moods. (Photo: Courtesy of Staples Advantage.)

By John Michael
Published in the May 2012 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Promoting green products and practices across all areas of a building remains an important item on facility managers’ (fms’) checklists. To that end, fms are continuing to prioritize recycling programs both to benefit the environment and meet goals for sustainability.

While paper, plastic bottles, and cardboard typically rank at the top of recycling lists, there is a host of other products—not traditionally associated with recycling—that also can make a big impact on the environment. Professionals in search of ideas should settle in and take a seat…and make it a green one!

Indeed, fms are seeing that furniture made from recycled, renewable, and sustainable materials can contribute to healthier, more productive buildings. Environmentally preferable pieces—from chairs to filing cabinets to cubicle panels and more—can help companies meet green goals, achieve relevant certifications and standards, prioritize employees’ health, and even help serve as a competitive differentiator.

While the demand for recycled and other green products is nothing new in many cases, the notion of sustainability continues to evolve and become more holistic by integrating across all areas of a facility and spanning all aspects of a given product. Fms who recognize this trend and ensure environmental stewardship throughout a product’s life cycle and supply chain will be better poised to meet evolving green demands.

Going, Going Green

Fms can apply furniture made from recycled and sustainable components to help create healthy, eco-conscious workspaces that are more attractive. Here are five considerations to keep in mind during the furniture selection process:

1. Focus on fabrics and finishes. A first step when evaluating how green a furniture piece is (or when comparing products) involves examining the percentage of recyclable or renewable content.

On the fabric side, fms can go green by selecting natural and bio-based fibers along with recycled content. Many newer fabrics also emphasize environmentally preferable production, including processes powered by renewable energy.

Environmentally preferable fabrics can have health advantages too. For example, by looking at alternatives to traditional vinyl and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) materials, fms can help prevent their associated environmental and health hazards. As an added benefit, PVC-free upholstery materials are often durable and easy to clean, which helps to eliminate stains, mildew, and bacteria.

More and more furniture finishes are also being produced in an environmentally responsible manner. For example, wood product manufacturers are making their finishes more sustainable by reducing waste and harmful solvents.

A primary benefit is that such finishes help prevent off-gassing, a situation that occurs when volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, evaporate and are released into the air. Off-gassing often triggers allergies and chemical sensitivities. In addition to improving indoor air quality (IAQ), low emitting finishes are also often scratch and fade resistant, helping to keep furniture in quality condition.

2. Consider multiple environmental certifications. To create an environmentally preferable space, fms should incorporate furniture and design solutions that align with companies’ sustainability goals and meet third-party environmental certifications they deem important. However, with a wide range of certifications and acronyms to learn—and with companies’ varying priorities—this is not always an easy task.

One major certification and standard that is important for many sustainability oriented companies is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). LEED is a certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and is the internationally accepted benchmark for evaluating green design, construction, and operations across different types of buildings.

By incorporating environmentally preferable furniture, fms can often help their buildings attain LEED credits. Additional prominent certifications for furniture include GREENGUARD certified products (which improve IAQ), and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood products (which promote sustainable forestry).

In addition to staying close to corporate environmental goals, fms can also strive to meet the needs of a diverse occupant base by incorporating furniture and design solutions building wide that meet multiple environmental certifications simultaneously.

3. Evaluate the complete supply chain. As sustainability priorities evolve, companies are considering more than just their furniture’s final makeup; they’re looking at how products were manufactured, packaged, and shipped in addition to other basic considerations like price and quality. As such, fms should investigate the idea of partnering with manufacturers and furniture dealers who promote environmental responsibility throughout the entire product life cycle.

Here are some key questions for fms to contemplate when evaluating a company’s manufacturing and distribution methods:

  • Does the company use renewable sources of energy (like solar or wind power) to run its operations?
  • Is the company’s equipment ENERGY STAR® rated?
  • Does it minimize plastics and other harmful materials in its product packaging?
  • Does the company help customers consolidate orders to avoid multiple shipments of small items? Consolidation not only helps lower costs, but it also results in significant environmental savings due to less packaging waste and reduced CO2 emissions from fewer truck deliveries.
  • Does the company have strategically located distribution centers that can help ensure customers are getting their products from the closest location?
  • Does the company use electric vehicles for distribution and deliveries?

4. Assess avenues for retired products. There is an emphasis today on reusing and recycling old furniture rather than simply throwing it out. And fms have several viable options when it comes to reusing furniture that has reached the end of the road.

One avenue for dealing with retired products is to partner with a used furniture broker who will buy old furniture and either send the pieces to recycling or refurbish and resell them. Fms should also consider organizations, such as the Institution Recycling Network, or IRN, that accept old furniture as donations and then reuse them in developing countries and other places of need.

5. Don’t forget the impact of design.
To create a truly eco-conscious workplace, fms should incorporate sustainable furniture to complement an overall environmentally oriented design. This spans everything from the floor—including environmentally preferable carpeting and/or flooring solutions—to the walls, with low or no VOC paint options often incorporated. The ceiling and lighting solutions should be considered too.

In terms of lighting, fms can opt to maximize natural light to reduce energy usage, “bring the outside in,” and even improve building occupants’ moods. In addition, by replacing fluorescent lighting with adjustable LED lighting, fms can improve worker visibility and decrease eye strain while reducing energy consumption. In addition, including plants throughout a facility can literally add a touch of green to the building.

A Green Beginning And Ending

As sustainable practices rise in importance, companies will expect green initiatives to permeate their businesses—including their office space. Fms who understand how to identify and select recycled and environmentally preferable furniture, as well as incorporate sustainable design across their buildings, can help achieve company goals, promote environmental awareness, and prioritize health and productivity.

Michael is vice president and general manager of Business Interiors by Staples, which is part of Staples Advantage, the business-to-business division of Staples, Inc., and helps organizations create more comfortable, productive, and aesthetic environments.