Is carbon counting really the answer for the office furniture industry?

A footprint on a beach to illustrate how the office furniture sector and others need to take a more sophisticated approach to environmental issuesThere is an increasing awareness that carbon is contained within all the products we buy. As an example, a leading sports trainer manufacturer is now displaying carbon content labelling, rather like food retailers quote calories. Within the workplace sector, the environmental impact of the built environment and products such as office furniture and flooring are seemingly well known. This must include consideration regarding how refurbishments and changes to embrace new working practices are managed responsibly.

Most dieters will know that counting calorie intake alone doesn’t make you thinner and healthier. Similarly, carbon measurement cannot be the only metric. What about all the products being discarded during decommissioning or refit? What will happen to the embedded carbon and valuable raw materials contained within the supposedly redundant assets?

Society has, over the last decades, adopted a ‘throw away’ culture with little regard to the consequences. We must change our approach. We need to re-think how we maximise the lifecycle of virgin materials – we cannot continue to discard and start again.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Who is responsible for ensuring that discarded products aren’t simply thrown into a skip?[/perfectpullquote]

Many manufacturers will state that materials contained within a particular product are 100% recyclable. This is probably true but how can these materials be segregated into waste streams? Who is responsible for ensuring that discarded products aren’t simply thrown into a skip and that they do reach an appropriately skilled recycler? Equally, will the increasing pressure on financial budgets override environmental responsibility?

Companies are now setting carbon budgets for their workplace. Operational carbon is relatively easy to measure and potentially reduce. The introduction of smart building technology with sophisticated controls is having an impact on energy efficiency. The decarbonisation of the National Grid and investments in renewables will also reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Day to day waste generated by a business is increasingly segregated for onward management by a waste contractor who are frequently required to report future destinations. This approach is, however, slow to translate to interior fitouts and refurbishments.

I posted an image of the carbon labelling for the sports trainer on LinkedIn. It was heartening that it gained a significant response particularly amongst the workplace design community. The desire to evaluate and measure carbon contained within new products is a positive step forward. Lifecycle assessments must, however, be part of the equation.

A product’s Environmental Product Declaration contains a raft of data – much of which can be difficult to interpret! Within the description, there are likely to be statements, such as, “At the end of life, the products can be reused, recycled or disposed of. This EPD is calculated on the basis that xx% of the products are reused and xx% recycled.” A document cannot, of course, guarantee that this happens!

The property, office furniture and workplace sectors need to work collaboratively – including, of course, occupiers – to recognise the implications of change. Future decommissioning needs to be planned from the start.