EnvironDesign Notebook: What Does Office Furniture Have To Do With Sustainability?

May 19, 2009

BIFMA’s new sustainability standard should bring much-needed consistency and transparency to manufacturing processes that claim to be environmentally friendly.

In 2008, I wrote about the internationally recognized three “Es” of sustainable development and my concern about the too casual use of the word “sustainable.” Now I’m creating my own triplet: the three “Ss”—sustainability, standards and skepticism.

“Skepticism?” you might ask. Yep, with all the product certifications cropping up and no end to the greenwashing, I’m suggesting a healthy dose of skepticism for all of us when we look at products making sustainability claims. When I teach my CEU on sustainability, I advise that LEED® is an excellent reference for designers for product selection guidance, even if they aren’t doing a LEED project. USGBC used a multi-stakeholder, consensus-based process to develop LEED, raising the bar on indoor air quality and resource efficiency.

Let’s go further! Some important aspects of sustainability are missing from LEED; such as product durability, future recyclability, suppliers’ impacts, manufacturing impacts, and corporate social responsibility (to name a few). Some, particularly social responsibility, may be beyond the reasonable scope of LEED, but they are valuable to the planet.


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally proactive organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected The Natural Step—an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to education, advisory work and research in sustainable development since 1989. An international network of scientists defined three basic conditions that must be met to maintain the essential natural resources, structures and functions that sustain human society. A fourth system condition addresses the social and economic considerations driving those actions and our capacity as human beings to meet our basic needs. For more details about how the organization ties science to application, visit www.TheNaturalStep.org.

Product manufacturers must step up to the plate and go beyond LEED’s baseline to identify issues and continue to improve. Many recent product certification programs have emerged to encourage us to move forward, but the playing field isn’t level.

As a proper skeptic, you should look for change programs with these important characteristics:

  • Multi-stakeholder group of program developers. This group should represent diverse interests, not just those of the organization that created the initial concept. A mix of government, private sector, nonprofit, academic, subject experts, and other interest groups makes for a less biased end result.
  • Open and transparent process of developing consensus. The process needs the “bright light of day” so that interested outsiders will know how the program is developing, what the issues are, and when/how they can provide feedback.
  • Transparent and auditable standard. The program should not be a moving target—changing at the whim of a small group of insiders. Becoming a recognized standard is a process that adds development time but results in a measurable program.
  • Third-party certification to the standard. Third-party certification by qualified outside auditors assures that businesses seeking certification meet the same qualifications. The auditors must also have a process to prove their qualifications.
  • Continuous improvement. What is difficult to achieve today is likely to become more attainable in the future if we continue to strive toward it. Standards and goals should be revisited regularly.

Who assures these characteristics? Since1918, the nonprofit American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has facilitated the development of American National Standards (ANS) in the United States. Both the standards and the standards developers can be accredited by ANSI for meeting essential requirements for openness, balance, consensus, and due process. The content of the standards may relate to products, processes, services, systems, or personnel. (Continuous improvement is not an ANSI requirement but one that I consider valuable.)

I must admit that my background in government and environment made me skeptical of an industry developing its own standards. I was well-versed in the need for multi-stakeholder participation and openness but hadn’t dealt with product-specific programs until I began working in the furniture industry in 2006. I asked a LOT of questions.

I learned that, in 2005, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) had looked for a sustainability-focused standard that fit furniture, among various European standards and some new proprietary standards appearing in the United States, but none had all the characteristics needed. BIFMA teamed up with NSF International (both were ANSI-accredited standards developers) and put out a call for stakeholders. They got 125 participants plus 250 observers, and so began the process.

The result is the BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard (“e3”), which was completed in May 2008, accepted unanimously by the consensus group, and sent out for a public comment period. Three of the 40 public commentors pursued an appeal, primarily focusing on the certified wood credit. LEED requires FSC certification for sustainably harvested wood products and the BIFMA standard allowed other certifiers, but required more certified content from the non-FSC products. The appellants seek the same recognition as FSC certification.

When reading the BIFMA e3 Sustainability Standard, you will see some similarities with LEED in structure (a prerequisite/credit system with multiple achievement levels) and content (similar indoor air quality and materials credits) so that manufacturers are in sync with related LEED credits. The standard is applicable to all types of furniture, components and materials, multiple locations, and suppliers. It sets requirements at company, process and product-specific levels.

From a sustainability perspective, what’s exciting about the BIFMA e3 is its four elements and its benchmarking (i.e., you can’t manage what you haven’t measured).

The first two elements (below) will seem familiar if you work in LEED, as will the low-emitting materials concept for furniture in human health, but the e3 is far broader. For full detail, you can find the standard in its current form at www.bifma.org/public/SAS.html. (Download it now for free before the ANSI process is over.) Here are highlights of the elements:

  • In Materials, the prerequisite requires the organization to implement a Design for the Environment (DfE) program, putting important resource decisions up front in the product design process, where they can have real impact. The use of climate neutral materials, Life Cycle Assessment, and design for remanufacturing and for recycling are rewarded, as are take-back programs, materials and water efficiency in manufacturing, and (my favorite) design for durability. Instead of casually claiming recyclable (not recycled) content, it is necessary to verify facilities in at least six of the 10 USEPA regions of the United States that can handle the materials claimed to be recyclable or biodegradable, since these capabilities vary widely.
  • Energy and Atmosphere has the prerequisite of a top management energy policy plus optional points for conducting energy performance baselines, achieving Energy Star building ratings, establishing a greenhouse gas inventory baseline, and then making emissions reductions. The e3 awards points for assessing embodied energy for the materials used in the product and to manufacture it, using publicly available life-cycle inventory data, then reducing that energy. Transportation energy reductions and renewable energy use increases are also a part of the standard.
  • Human and Ecosystem Health has an intense approach that is much deeper than I can detail very well here, requiring compliance screening as a minimum. Environmental management systems, chemical management plans, and the identification and elimination of Chemicals of Concern from a 13 page list with approximately 50 chemicals per page provide direction. For human health, the chemicals are categorized by toxics, reproductive toxicants, carcinogens, and endocrine disruptors—each worthy of a separate article. For ecosystems, the categories cover acidification, aquatic toxicology, eutrophication, global warming, photochemical smog, stratospheric ozone depletors, and terrestrial toxicology. Also significant is that the credits on hazardous waste and air emissions include impacts of suppliers, if that is where the finishing and fabricating impacts are found.
  • Social responsibility is last, but certainly not least in the path toward sustainability because it evaluates a company’s impact on its workers and communities. Prerequisites include detailed employee health and safety management processes and protection of human rights. Additional credits address policies, inclusiveness, community outreach, corporate social responsibility reporting, and, due to challenges in developing countries, supply chain programs. These programs assess and report on suppliers’ impacts on forced labor, child labor, health and safety of workers, and other categories.

Once appeals are resolved, the ANSI process of standard development can wrap up. Companies are now having products certified to the standard and a new process of certification is being created to avoid the confusing use of many different names by different certifying organizations. The BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard could easily become a template for manufacturers of other products, bringing some much-needed consistency to the process for all of us to move toward sustainability.

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel’s stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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