We must seize the chance to go full circle on sustainable office design

The circular economy is the ‘holy grail’. Few people would deny the ambition of keeping resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them, then recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life. Is this achievable within the furniture and furnishings sector? Many manufacturers and suppliers can justifiably boast impressive ‘green’ credentials, such as manufacturing techniques, the use of innovative and sustainable materials as well as recyclability of products. The production and supply of new furnishings doesn’t address, however, the short and longer term issues relating to sustainability. ‘Cradle to cradle’ is a great concept – but who is responsible?

Most designers and workplace specialists are predicting significant change within the office environment. There is general agreement about the ‘return to the office’ with a transition to hybrid working, co-working, greater use of collaborative spaces and awareness of providing for ‘well being’. This scenario will, in many cases, lead to a fundamental change of use of office space, possibly with a significant reduction in dedicated desks. The ‘new dawn’ does pose a major question relating to sustainability – what will happen to the redundant furniture and furnishings? Who is responsible for the ongoing lifecycle management and maintenance of new products? Who determines ‘beyond economic use’?

Unlike the domestic furniture market, the opportunity for reuse of contract furniture is limited. When designing new workspaces, most end users want the latest designs of furniture. In any case, it is completely impractical to ‘shop around’ to find the right product suitable for renovation. What’s more, resale values are minimal so warehousing and storage of surplus, redundant products is not commercially viable.

Does the ‘new workplace’ planning process include consideration for reuse? All too often, there are no alternative options. Metal components, with a worthwhile resale value, can be reclaimed for recycling but the remainder is, at best, destined for ‘energy from waste’ incineration.

Who is responsible for addressing the issues? Should furniture and furnishings be subject to ‘WEEE’ style legislation? Can financial models drive sustainability through, for example, a hybrid rental / lease arrangement? Contract plans for vehicles work because the high capex value of the initial purchase together with residual worth – can this be applied to the entire furnishing spend?


Ahead of time?

During the first decades of the 2000s, I experienced some exciting initiatives relating to lifecycle management of furniture and equipment. The nature and size of the contracts inspired and fuelled considerable innovation incorporating warranties, repairs, renovation, reuse, recycling and, where necessary, disposal.

Reuse and remanufacturing was a significant part of the strategy. Much of the remanufacturing work – such as conversion of large workstations to smaller, straight desks – created work for third sector and social value organisations. Workshops were established in prisons, for example, with accredited training. Reuse partners were identified through charity organisations.

Opportunities were also being researched to minimise redundancy. For example, the conversion of desktops to become boards for use within the building sector.

The commercial contracts were based on long term, PFI-style models with ‘risk’ designed to be offset by length of tenure – the most high profile being an 18 year contract for management of an Estate accommodating over 100,000 personnel. Short term models were developed too. For example, a high value and volume contract which incorporated the ‘carrot’ to supply new but with the obligation to manage surplus assets; an arrangement with a major sporting event based on a rental agreement with the removal of product at the end of the two year project. There was no obligation to supply new furniture but it had to be to an agreed standard as ‘fit for purpose’.

Will the economic recession prevent innovation and the traditional model of purchase at the most competitive price prevail? Is legislation the only answer or is there is the opportunity for the major players to ‘join up’ to create volume to facilitate a new business model? What is possible given that the industry is currently experiencing great financial pressures?

Many manufacturers and suppliers are making great strides to work towards a more sustainable model. I hope to inspire some round table discussions and host debates with key players to facilitate a way forward.