October 17, 2014
One of the current preoccupations of the World Green Building Council is to demonstrate how green business is good business. The way it is presenting this argument is intriguing because as well as extolling the most anticipated benefits of green building design, such as lower energy bills, it is linking green building design with human factors such as productivity, wellness and work-life balance. It has produced a number of reports on this subject, most recently in September with a publication titled Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices which found ‘overwhelming evidence’ of the link between office design and productivity. What such compelling reports also highlight are the complex challenges we face and the sophisticated approach we must take to environmental issues and corporate social responsibility. Fortunately this is already exhibited by many organisations.
The cynical tend to argue that when companies address such issues they are doing so because it helps them to achieve their business goals. This is the coldly rational thing to do according to people like free market guru Milton Friedman who argues that companies should not actively pursue altruistic ends unless that pursuit is ultimately in the interest of their shareholders. As Friedman puts it: ‘Hypocrisy is virtuous when it serves the bottom line. Moral virtue is immoral when it does not’.
While this may shine a light on the motives of some companies when they make their claims of corporate social responsibility, it does not explain why so many of them do more than they need to and address issues such as employee wellness and happiness. Indeed many of them do far more than is demanded of them by customers and their environmental and ethical obligations under law. When it comes to office furniture and flooring, for example, many manufacturers have developed a sophisticated approach to the design of their products that touches not only on the end product itself but on every aspect of the firm’s operations, back through the supply chain and to the recycling, refurbishment, reuse and ethical disposal of the product that exceeds what is expected of them by legislation.
The people who manufacture carpets, office furniture, seating and accessories typically display a remarkable degree of awareness of their supply chain, use of materials, manufacturing processes, logistics and recycling that can put other industries in the shade. Yet even this brings its own challenges. Anybody who has ever worked on developing a brief and seeing the response to it will be aware of this problem of ‘green noise’, a background hum of universal claims, often to meet specific legislation. When every manufacturer makes the same claims about their environmental policies, accreditations and use of materials, those credentials become a way of weeding out the very few poorly performing firms rather than positive selection criteria.
Some products may be used over again, recycled as a finished item. Many products are useful beyond the lifecycle prescribed for them when they are first procured and there are thriving reuse schemes throughout the UK, many of which act as charities so add another layer of ethical practice.
On other products, longevity can be enhanced when the product is supplied with a replacement programme or with a design that allows specific components – such as seat pads and fabrics to be replaced. Similarly, while all products age over time, many of them may actually wear in ways that customers do not mind or even prefer. Provided that wear and tear occurs in the right ways and the right time, they can give the product an air of maturity. This is often the case with leather, wood and certain types of metal that develop an attractive patina and is definitely the case with the great design classics.
It also pays to look at complex issues about the use of specific materials. For example, while chrome is traditionally seen as something of a bad boy from an environmental point of view (and for several good reasons), it can also extend the life of a product that may make it environmentally friendly than an unchromed product over its entire lifecycle. With such complex and interrelated issues, it pays not to make assumptions, but to check and seek informed advice.
So while legislators and manufacturers can play their own important role in ensuring a set of ground rules, there is also an onus on the rest of us not to get drawn into the cynicism around greenwashing and the potentially conflicted priorities of a minority of organisations. In practice, the overwhelming majority of suppliers in the office interiors sector have taken significant and genuine steps to deal with their environmental impact and a great many of them doing far more than is asked of them by legislation. They do this for their own ethical reasons and because they understand that they need sophisticated products and services that not only respond to the expectations of their customers, but exceed them too.
Paul Goodchild is the Design Director of Fresh Workspace.