Breaking the barrier to sustainable furniture

In this insightful essay Marc Richard, CEO of CE International, explores how the commercial furniture industry could be more sustainable

The Conran Shop celebrates 50 years of design heritage with a fresh look and London flagship store in 2023 and it is a real honour to be part of this new chapter. Working in partnership, we are now launching The Conran Shop’s exclusive furniture range to the commercial market. A timeless product offering from lighting, soft seating, tables, chairs to outdoor furniture-all built to last.

For me, however this is so much more than extending our offering. It is an important piece in the jigsaw towards a new system that will allow us to access furniture in a more meaningful way in the future. A circular system. One that starts with quality that stands the test of time and defines a new era.

The Problem Of Our Time

The Furniture Industry reportedly accounts for approximately 5% of global carbon emissions. The average piece of furniture has 47 kilograms of embodied carbon. This is roughly the same amount of greenhouse gasses produced by burning around 24litres of petrol. Sofas are the biggest problem with on average over 90 kilograms of embodied carbon. As part of this picture, every year 24 million hectares of forest are cut down or burnt to fulfil the global demand for new furniture. This is the same area as the landmass of the United Kingdom. Every year!

On top of this, the industry that enables people to select, source, buy and use furniture globally creates an abhorrent level of waste. According to European Federation of Furniture Manufacturers (UEA), in Europe an estimated 10 million tonnes of furniture is discarded every year, with 80% to 90% incinerated or sent to landfill at the end of life, with only approximately 10% recycled.

As with the vast majority o four global industries, the traditional linear economic system means that we buy, consume and dispose. Take, make, waste, as it’s called. With the best will in the world even producing using sustainable materials does not make enough of a difference to truly combat the problem.

The greater problem is that this industry is an ever-expanding machine. Globally it is a $500 billion industry that is expected to grow to $650 billion by 2027. This means that many millions of people globally are reliant on the destructive status quo of this industry, so change inevitable will be resisted

The Current Barrier To Progress

Retailers, furniture dealers, procurement companies, logistics companies, furniture manufacturers and their supply chains are all reliant on this relentless demand for furniture consumption and disposal to continue to grow. Corporate institutions have never been known for encouraging change that threatens their very existence. No one is going to ask to have this livelihood taken away. One recent anecdote comes from the Head Of Sales for a globally recognised furniture brand calling one of their biggest corporate clients to complain that they were considering sourcing reconditioned furniture instead of honouring their global agreement to buy new tells you all you need to know.

This systemic economic momentum is driven by individual personal incentives to sell more new furniture. The sales team at every point in the supply chain are paid more if they sell more. The linear business model derives its profit from high and increasing sales. Neither the individual nor the business cares about the end of life for the pieces of furniture they sell.

If we are to start caring about the end of life, we need to first understand thereasons furniture stops being used. These reasons seem to fall into three broad categories:

Furniture is Broken As with all products in a throwaway society, the first urge when something is broken is to purge it from our lives in the easiest way possible. The easiest current option is landfill via a skip.

The Desire For Change As the fashion industry trends are a huge driver in interior design. If its texture or colour is dated, then it is no longer ‘envogue’. In commercial offices where tasteful interiors reflect the brand’s cultural relevance for example, this means a full fit out.

Furniture Gets Left Behind Both individuals and companies are transient, forgetful and they die. Even if the furniture is designed to stand the test of time it is not immune from being discarded in the pace of life. Even people with good intentions and sustainable ideals struggle to prioritise furniture with the relentless pace of life.

Once these reasons occur the lack of awareness, options and opaqueness of disposal channels mean that people cannot make good decisions on how to extend the life of the furniture at the back end.

Considering the industry from this perspective, we see the heart of the problem. There is no real alternative to satisfy the gap left by these existing‘ end of life triggers other than new furniture. Solve or remove these problems and you will solve the big driver of waste. Solve the big driver of waste and the requirement for new falls substantially. The millions of hectares of forest and billions of kilograms of embodied carbon will be slashed.

10 Years Into The Future

Let’s fast forward 10 years into the future. What I see is a very different world. As with every generation, technology and innovation will drive behaviours, the way of living and the social landscape. Artificial Intelligence, digital-physical world integration and other innovation that will drive a faster more efficient world. These time-poor decision makers are Gen Zers (aged currently between 13 and 27years old) who have grown up as digital natives-with a preference for ‘access’ over ‘ownership’.

The Climate Crisis furore will be exacerbated by more extreme weather patterns and more extreme scientific projections. Clean energy and carbon emission progress will have been made but a fear of the apocalypse will be more real. Politically and socially it will no longer be acceptable to propagate the linear system and to have waste end up in landfill. These decision makers in 2033 will look back with horror at almost 90% of furniture in Europe being incinerated or sent to landfill only a decade previously.

In 2033 these decision makers could instead get painless access to furniture through an end-to-end service. This service allows companies that need furniture to select from a timeless range of designs, customise what they need and have it delivered to their location with the equivalent ease of ordering from Amazon (circa 2020). The furniture will be made to last, be maintained by professionals and be taken away whenever the users no longer want or require it. All seamlessly paid for across the lifecycle of the clients use.

Many forward-thinking people in the furniture industry share this vision. Dean Connell, Creative Director at Knotel believes “we desire change in our lives, so consumption is a natural way for people to explore and express their identities over time. It’s a healthy function of our modern society. However, I envision a world where the most revered furniture products will be inherently circular and made to last.”

As we have discussed, today the vast majority of the furniture supply chain is incentivised to sell new furniture like it’s going out of fashion. There is no financial or significant social pressure to be responsible for the end of life cycle or ensure that the asset value of this furniture propagates into the future. With no current incentives and a complex alternative system the status quo is hard to change.

The System We Need

To paraphrase and possibly mangle a lovely quote, progress doesn’t come from deriding the existing system but from building a new one. This system we need is focussed around creating commercial value in the furniture when the user no longer needs it. If this furniture has commercial value and this value is easily accessible, then the demand for furniture will find this new supply.

The car industry, by comparison, is considered wasteful but for very different reasons. If we consider that global market we don’t find consumers buying cars in a single transaction, using them for a couple of years and then leaving them littered by the side of the road when something breaks or they get bored. There is a highly efficient system that supports drivers to propagate the asset value of their vehicles. If a tyre bursts or a windscreen gets chipped, you know who to call. And it isn’t Ghost Busters! If your car needs a service, you know where to take it. Financial purchase agreements aside, drivers have ultimate flexibility in how long they use a vehicle for. It could be six months; it could be 20 years. As we have seen in the last decade, it could now be six hours.

Because of this highly efficient system, people know with incredibly high levels of confidence what their car is worth now and what it will be worth in five years’ time. Most drivers would not for a second consider driving their car into a skip and leaving it!

What could this comparison tell us about the efficient system that the furniture industry desperately needs? The answer is a closed loop system integrated with a secondary market could be delivered with five pillars.

Design – Furniture needs to be designed for longevity, to enable repair and refresh and to evolve over time. Today, ubiquitous cheap furniture that the industry is incentivised to sell is designed for a short lifespan. Without designing for longevity there are no strong foundations to keep furniture inexistence. However, merely being usable is not enough. Furniture must be easy to repair. This means identifying the components and features that will wear or at risk of failure. Traditionally upholstered furniture, for example, is not designed for disassembly so the cost of re-upholstery or reconditioning is often as expensive as making a new one.

Technical Support – The operational system that underpins furniture being enabled to last is the same as the garage repair network in the car industry: Technicians are needed that can work closely to assess and service furniture with minimum intervention; Operational partnerships with facilities that can efficiently support the reprocessing and recondition of furniture; reverse logistics to move the furniture back and forward to these facilities. Many of these functions could and should be performed by the existing supply chain.

Technology – Technology can drive efficiency in so many areas of this new system, but two critical areas are the facilitation of asset tracking and being market makers. Asset tracking would allow existing and future users to locate, authenticate and keep a record of the entire inventory of furniture available. Market making would allow the efficient flow of access from one lifecycle and user to another.

Financial – In the vast majority of cases, the current linear furniture system is front end loaded to reflect the one-off transactional nature of buying furniture and absconding any associated responsibility. In the car industry, Personal Contract Hire (PCH) allow users to switch from full ownership to access and then seamlessly flow from access to one vehicle after another. Users can spread the costs of maintenance packages and insurance. In the furniture industry financial solutions that reflect and incentivise the partnership and ongoing custodianship need to be created an dwork symbiotically with the other pillars.

CE International & The Conran Shop’s Contribution

In conclusion, the traditional linear economic system of take, make, waste is no longer sustainable, and we need to shift towards a circular system that starts with quality and is built to last. The Conran Shop and CE International’s partnership is a step in the right direction towards creating a sustainable future. By designing and producing furniture that is durable and timeless, using high-quality materials that can be repurposed or recycled at the end of its life, we can reduce waste and create a more sustainable future for all.

CE International, with our factory in Somerset and the Roger Lewis brand, has always fought against cheap throwaway markets. Often for no one’s benefit other than our own pride, we have built furniture to last. Now with The Conran Shop range and our manufacturing capabilities that allow us to stand by this furniture, we are working with our clients and our suppliers who want to experiment with furniture partnerships. Our goal is to create a circular system that starts with quality and as the furniture reaches the end of its life, it is repurposed or recycled, reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfill. We can start to work towards this exciting future. We look forward to working with our clients in the coming years, in this brave new, rapidly changing world

Marc is CEO of CE International representing both Roger Lewis Furniture and the Conran Shop. You can find him on Linkedin here

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