Buyers Guide for Sustainable Office Furniture

For those moving office or replacing worn furniture, sustainable office furniture options are available which reduce environmental impacts, improve staff wellness and productivity AND save 50% or more of the cost of new furniture.

What is so Unsustainable about Office Furniture?

New furniture is manufactured from raw materials extracted, refined, shaped, finished and transported all around the world. Each step uses water, creates greenhouse gas emissions and impacts directly on the natural environment through mining and waste.

Following use, many furniture manufacturers claim that their furniture can be recycled. But mostly this is left to the customer to arrange. This is understandably a low priority for a company replacing the odd item intermittently, or dealing with the myriad of challenges of moving office.

This explains the 300 tonnes of office furniture that goes to landfill every working day in the UK, according to WRAP’s 2012 estimates.

Staff wellness can be impacted by poor furniture choices, with unergonomic furniture often leading to pain and recurring injuries and their consequent costs for the business. Chemicals used in new furniture manufacture can include formaldehydes and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can cause a range of adverse health impacts.

The UK imports £2B worth of commercial furniture each year according to the Office for National Statistics. This hurts the UK’s balance of payments, reduces resource security and misses out on local jobs.

Economically, new furniture is very expensive, with leading desk chairs costing well over £1,000 + VAT each, which is difficult for most companies to justify nowadays.

So new furniture comes with a range of environmental, social and economic costs.

More Sustainable Options

The emergence of the circular economy has created more sustainable furniture options for buyers at all levels of the Waste Hierarchy2, a framework adapted below for office furniture.

Used/Second hand furniture can be found in most cities. While it has a low environmental footprint because nothing is done to the furniture, buyers should be aware of wear and damage – as well as quite high prices and low volumes through some popular marketplaces such as eBay.

Environmentally, the footprint of used furniture is limited to the transportation of the items, which is usually only a couple of percent of the environmental impact created when it is first made from virgin materials.

Reuse has historically occurred with top quality furniture created by revered designers; it is now becoming popular for well-designed items from less famous manufacturers and designers.

Refreshing/Repairing/Refurbishing furniture involves giving it a facelift, such as reupholstering to replace worn or out-of-date fabric, or fixing broken parts. This is the second most sustainable option in the hierarchy, and can be done using materials, including fabrics, which are recycled.

Reupholstering provides buyers with the opportunity to match furniture (both existing and from multiple sources) – enabling larger batches sufficient to furnish a modest office. Expect to pay 40% to 50% of new list price for a refreshed item.

Environmentally, the footprint of a refreshed item can be 90% lower than a new items form virgin materials.

Remaking/Remanufacturing takes the long life components (like steel and aluminium bases on desks and chairs) from good quality used items, checks and resurfaces them and replaces the softer parts around them. The result, depending on the level of quality required, can be indistinguishable from new and carry the same warranty.

The remanufacturing process enables buyers to tailor the aesthetics and finish to meet their needs – including corporate colours or matching with existing furniture. Furniture remanufacturing companies have access to large volumes of used furniture for remanufacturing, so can supply larger offices.

The environmental savings of remanufacturing have been calculated at over 80% of a piece made from virgin materials and prices are 50% to 60% of the list price of new.

Many buyers are not aware of remanufacturing and the quality that it achieves, despite most brand name office photocopiers (like Xerox, Kyocera and Ricoh) being remanufactured – the one in your office may be in its 8th life.

RBS, University College London and the NHS, amongst others, have embraced remanufacturing to achieve quality, style AND value for money in office furniture.

Quality is key with remanufacturing and you should ask to see samples and agree on the minimum level of quality to be achieved; the best remanufacturers have clearly understood grades of quality for this purpose.

Recycle. Of course, even if you choose to buy new, you can ensure that your existing furniture finds a good home (through reuse, refreshing or remanufacturing) by offering it to a remanufacturer, who will often take it away at no cost, saving you the transport and recycling costs.

Maximising Wellness

Healthy offices share a number of features, including:

  • Fully adjustable desk chairs, including height, lumbar support, tilt, armrest and seat adjustability
  • Use of natural elements, like wood finishes, to appeal to human preferences for nature (called biophilia)
  • Avoided volatile organic compounds through choice of materials/supplier or reuse/remanufacturing (because volatile organic compounds reduce over time)
  • Designed for disabilites, including following the guidelines provided by the Royal National Institute for the Blind
  • Maximising daylight and views (proven to increase human productivity and health. See, for example, Singh et al, 2010)
  • Varied working locations to allow staff to change their posture (e.g. stand up) and ease muscles
  • Variety, including team-specific desk orientations (because no-one wants to feel like a battery chicken sitting in a long row)

Other emerging techniques for improving wellbeing and happiness in offices include the establishment of virtual walls for privacy, and acoustic management techniques to minimise noise disturbance in open plan offices.

Creating a Wonderful Office on a Tight Budget

Of course we all want to work in a beautiful, sustainable, productive, healthy office that is affordable. Our experience has shown that good design is the key to achieving this.

We have all seen very expensive offices that look terrible and budget offices that are fantastic workplaces – the difference is good design.

Traditionally, architects and interior designers charged large amounts for their services, but this is changing. Turnkey companies, including some furniture remanufacturers, are offering design services at no cost. They are reinventing how design occurs by working collaboratively with the client team and project manager to co-design an office so that it exactly meets company needs and budget.

Of course, furniture buyers should check the credentials and past projects of those offering free design, as would occur with paid designers.

A Big Payoff

The business case for sustainable office furniture is attractive, including:

  • Reduced cost of furniture
  • Improved staff productivity
  • Reduced staff pain and absence from muscle stress, sickness and repetitive strain injuries
  • Improved company sustainability (waste, scope 3 GHG emissions)

Good designs add to the benefits with:

  • Reduced office size/room for more staff in comfort
  • Better staff collaboration
  • Better staff morale, attraction and retention