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  • Ric Frampton

What's next for circularity, in the Furniture Industry?

Updated: Dec 1, 2022


This time last year I shared several posts with bullet point statements around the subject of circularity in the furniture industry. The intention was to inform change in a bite sized easy to absorb way. So, I thought I’d follow that up a year later, with an article that asks a few more in-depth questions and suggests the direction circularity is developing.



Introduction

The furniture industry has turned its focus to Circularity. Companies’ social feeds are full of statistics and product launches that demonstrate a greater emphasis on the selection of materials, their recyclability and recycled content. Some companies have taken a higher understanding of circularity and developed products that specifically tackle the issues around separability and remanufacture. Others have chosen to focus on longevity though product quality and the warranties that support it or even creating their own take back schemes. If in 2023, more companies follow this rhetoric, what can we expect to see as a progressive evolution of circularity in practise, what drivers will there be to ensure further investment? Furthermore, how do we navigate our way through it?



Analysis

So why is the industry changing now and why is it so far behind others like fashion and automotive? I have often discussed with clients the three possible motivators of change towards circularity; Morals, Commerce and Regulation. There are both positive and negative connotations to all of these.


Moral - action can be quick to implement. If someone was consciously engaged, we should expect positive results ahead of the competing market. However, relying on people’s morals to improve the world is at best a good start and at worst a spectrum of subjective solutions. Also, the expense of this stance could price a product out of the market making it commercially questionable for low value products.


Commerce - has the potential to make enormous change. The competition to be the next best thing could drive environmental issues into the forefront of minds and provoke environmental purchases and price balance. However, what’s claimed may not be the total truth. If an environmental front is a good way of making money, then we need to be aware of greenwashing. This may come in macro form as well as a larger misleading strategy.


Regulation - is the fairest way for us all to understand the legitimacy of a products claims. Products are rigorously tested and graded to be awarded certification. Although there are government studies and organisations that advise methods to support circularity, currently regulation only covers sustainability and environmental impact. Good examples of standards and certifications would be FSC and BSI. There isn’t a grade or mark that acts a banner to rate furniture's circularity.


It may be hard to determine the reason for a slow uptake, but this analysis can guide us to what we can expect and therefore how we prepare. The market, as is stands, seems to be in middle of ‘moral’ and ‘commerce’. A select few companies have invested, driven by their own moral compass and engaged with changing public awareness of circularity. The market has slowly adjusted, and we are now in a position where the language in a sales pitch is not just based around the design of a product or cost, but also its environmental compliance. The language and terminology used is changing and the product options available are growing. This is incredibly positive, but without clear regulation how can we confidently engage and navigate our way through the changing market and the language chosen to explain it.



Examples

I’ve heard stories of buyers focusing on products with a high recycled content and disregarding others made from highly sustainable materials. How do we choose one product over the another? Which one is best? What value do we gauge our purchases on? The answers should come from expertise, because if you're not sure, you should be asking people who are. Fortunately, there are options to help us make decisions. Like employing an environmental officer, contracting a consultant or subscribing to an organisation that can supply good source of information to study. In some ways we all need to be an expert and improve our knowledge in the subject. We need to be confident that we use the correct words and fully understand what people mean when they use them. In my experience, professional environmentalists are extremely helpful and open to educating anyone who’s genuinely interested.



Circularity is a complex subject and developing a product to fit within it takes a lot of time and knowledge which is very hard to convey on any short platform. Ultimately, it's the journey of a products’ life. Where it’s from, what it’s made of, where it goes and who it meets on the way. We can focus on some of that journey, with well-known terminology like sustainability or recyclability. These are articulated in statistics and percentages and are easy to quantify. However, they are only a possibility. Each material is part of a system and has its own mechanism for recovery. The part of the journey that I’d like to focus on is the travel; how and who decides where a product goes when it has finished its purpose. A product can be empowered with all the design intention and statistics, but it’s down to the owner to choose its destination. If we question the mechanism of recovery and where these parts meet their end of life, it still needs to be commercially viable to recover, process and reuse these materials. Recovery is the key to circularity. It enables all the good work that proceeds it. With huge development in materials and regulation that support sustainability and recyclability, how can we innovate the business around mechanisms of recovery?



The Point

With growth comes demand. The change and surge in the furniture industries appetite for environmental products has caused a demand for design, materials and services to support circularity and will reduce the industries negative impact on the planet.


Materials are at the forefront of this wave of interest. All suppliers are either launching new materials and processes with recycled and or sustainable content, or they’re working through their due diligence in preparation for the years to come. Research and development is so important but also so expensive, and it takes time to properly prepare and test. The industry is eager to drive the introduction of greener materials, but they are only part of the cycle. All resources need to be savoured and reused. Expect to see more variants and statistics to prove legitimacy.


As companies invest and look to reduce investment risk, they should aim to get the right advice and invest in expertise. We can expect to see a rise in demand for environmental experts that understand the comical world and the goals we need to set. Products that are being developed now, will be out in the market for many years, and as the industries knowledge in circularity becomes common place these products will come under greater scrutiny.


Ensuring products are remanufactured or broken down into recyclable parts is an inevitable necessity to reducing waste. Materials should have many incarnations as we change from a linear consumer modal to a circular one. As we start to understand that circularity is a term that connects all our environmental efforts, we should see a rise in mechanisms of recovery and the infrastructure that support it.


Generally, I think the market is moving in the right way. Competition is up, anyone who has embraced a move to circularity should see the parallels between circularity and money saved or the opportunity it creates. Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do and the furniture industry is starting to acknowledge that.




Good points of reference

https://environment.ec.europa.eu/topics_en

https://www.thersa.org/

https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/


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