How to Specify: Sustainable Furniture

May 1, 2020

How can designers tell if a product is truly sustainable or if it’s just been greenwashed? Join Chief Content Director Robert Nieminen as he talks with Brad Miller and Jennifer Wammack of BIFMA about product sustainability standards.

How can designers tell if a product is truly sustainable or if it’s just been greenwashed? And with all of the certifications out on the market, how do you know what they measure and what they don’t?

Join Chief Content Director Robert Nieminen as he talks with Brad Miller and Jennifer Wammack of BIFMA about product sustainability standards. Listen now.

*This podcast was sponsored by Interface Inc.

[Start transcript]

Robert Nieminen: Hello, everyone. This is Robert Nieminen, Chief Content Director for interiors+sources. You are listening to the I Hear Design podcast.

We’re continuing our How to Specify series that we launched earlier this year to help keep designers and specifiers up-to-date with what’s happening in the world of product manufacturing, and what you need to know before you start sourcing your next project.

In today’s episode, which we are actually recording on Earth Day, we are going to be focusing in on furniture and more specifically and appropriately, sustainable furniture.

Because as we continue to tackle the issue of climate change, it’s evident that the products and furnishings that go into buildings have a significant impact on the environment, especially when you consider that buildings account for 40% of annual global greenhouse gases.

But how can you tell if a product is truly sustainable or if it is just been greenwashed? With all the certifications that are out there on the market, how do you know what they measure and what they do not?

To answer some of these questions and offer some clarity to the conversation, I’ve invited Brad Miller, Director of Advocacy and Sustainability for the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association, better known as BIFMA, as well as Jennifer Wammack, Director of Outreach at BIFMA, to join me today. Brad and Jennifer, thanks for being here.

Jennifer Wammack: Thank you for having us, Robert.

Robert: For our listeners out there who may not be familiar with BIFMA, can you give them sort of the quick elevator pitch on what it is that you do as an association?

Jennifer: Sure. I’d be happy to. BIFMA is a nonprofit trade association. We represent the commercial furniture manufacturers based in North America. We have international members as well. We’ve been around for close to 50 years—47ish and counting, so we’ve been doing this for a long time.

We do a variety of things, but I think what most people know us for, and certainly this will probably be the case with your listeners, are the safety performance and sustainability standards that BIFMA develops for commercial furniture. That’s really a big part of what we do.

A lot of what we will be talking about today, we’ll really focus in on that. We do a little bit of advocacy, where it might be important for us to speak on behalf of the industry, with legislation and so on.

We also have a nice statistics program where we capture information from our members and are able to provide that to them in terms of the growth of the different segments and things like that. It helps them in their product development processes.

I guess from a high level, that is probably what we do sort of day in and day out.

Robert: Great. Thanks for that introduction. As I mentioned in the intro, furniture and sustainability go hand-in-hand and sustainable design and product manufacturing have really come a long way in 20 years or so.

Where would you say that we are now in terms of the sustainability conversation, and how important is it in the context of design today?

Brad Miller: I think the clarity and consensus amongst designers, manufacturers and purchasers has all increased over that 20-year period. The initial focus on wood, emissions and recycled content has broadened.

There’s an array of impact areas that are of concern and agreed upon today. But the attributes that a purchaser might want to see or know about are not uniformly provided or explained. There’s a lot of work still to be done in that area of alignment and harmonization amongst all the programs, and the people that work with and on these issues.

Additionally, I think critical to the design process today, sustainability, in all of its aspects, including health, are more important than ever. We are attempting at BIFMA to make sure in our standard in our work, it is embedded into everything we do.

Robert: Absolutely. Jennifer, anything you want to add in on that at all?

Jennifer: No, I think Brad really covered it.

Robert: Okay. There’s a myriad of certification programs on the market to differentiate products and how green they are, as we alluded to. Can you briefly explain for our listeners, the major differences between first-, second- and third-party certifications and what single versus multi attribute testing is all about?

[Related: What to Know Before You Specify Furniture]

Jennifer: You are right that this is kind of a confusing area for folks. When it comes to this notion of first-, second- and third-party, I like to think of it as really a proximity issue—how close is the person or entity making the claim to the claim itself? And so, that kind of speaks to how unbiased or reliable the claim might be perceived to be.

We have a CEU course that explains this in sort of a helpful way I think, if not perhaps a little bit silly, but I think it does make a nice illustration. If something is a first-party claim, this is really me telling you something about myself. In an example where you might have a baker, they stand up and say, ‘Oh, hey, I make the very best chocolate chip cookies in the world,’ which may or may not be true.

When you get to a second-party claim, this is probably the least used out there. It’s almost like a middle ground that people don’t tend to land on, but in our example, they would be a little bit further removed. That might be the flour vendor, somebody connected to the person making the claim, but not directly connected.

When you get to a third-party claim, and this is quite often used, this is when we’re talking about an independent entity, who really has no relationship to the company making the claim. In our example, this could be a well-respected food critic or something like that, saying because of my expertise and so on, and you can trust me. It is the Consumer Report’s unbiased version. That kind of helps explain what it is.

In the world of standards, the third-party certification really can be considered the gold standard if you will, because it is considered the most reliable and the most verifiable. Then even more, I would say when we are talking about the topic of sustainability, you used the word greenwashing as part of your introduction, and I think most everybody are familiar with that.

That speaks to why people often have an appropriate or rightful skepticism about claims related to sustainability because it is so complex. That’s why these third-party certifications become so critical.

Finally, I’ll say when it comes to LEVEL, which is a third-party certification program that BIFMA operates, we go even further to where we license the independent certifiers who do the accreditation. So, BIFMA itself does not do the accreditation. I think sometimes people are confused about that.

There are accreditation bodies out there, this is their expertise, and we license them so we’re assuring that they understand the standard, and they can really do a good job of making the claim. I’ll turn it over to you, Brad, to take a stab at the single versus multi-attribute question.

Brad: Yes, thank you, Jennifer. The multi-attribute nature of the program is I think one of its best features. A single attribute program you might be familiar with would be the Forest Stewardship Council or FSC program for sustainable wood, which is basically a tracking through chain of custody verification to make sure that you have sustainable forestry practices. That’s a great thing, but it’s one attribute.

There are in our standard today 111 different points you can get for water, energy, recycled content. All the things that might not independently or individually be top-of-mind for everyone, but in an overarching way are the go-to measurement points for a sustainability standard. That is the main difference between the two.

A multi-attribute standard may incorporate FSC criteria or furniture emissions criteria, but it does address the macro picture of including wildness and end-of-life strategies for products and so forth.

Robert: Right, yeah. You both touched on the LEVEL program, which is what I wanted to talk about next. Can you talk a little bit more about what it is, and how it can help designers ensure that they are specifying sustainable products with confidence?

Brad: Sure. LEVEL is the certification program to BIFMA’s voluntary Furniture Sustainability Standards. We created the standard first, which we do and have done since the 70s for a dozen or so standards for safety and performance of products.

The sustainability standard, when we put it out into the marketplace, because it was new and in many ways was a new conversation with not only our industry but many others, determined that by us we needed a program such as LEVEL, a mark that would distinguish a product that had gone through the rigor of assessment and come out the other end with a gold star so to speak, as to passing and at what threshold of the standard it passed.

I think we mentioned multi-attribute. We also use a transparent open multi-stakeholder process to ensure that we capture the expertise of not only manufacturers, but academia, government, consumers, environmental groups, so that everyone is at the table and everyone is invited to participate. They are open meetings.

Another great feature of the program in my mind, when we developed the standard and then the LEVEL certification program, we attempt to have that same kind of broad view approach. It’s been one that we put through the test of a pilot program with the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA did end up recommending LEVEL amongst the programs that are recommended a couple years ago, or various other sectors, so we were very pleased to see that.

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Robert: Yeah, that’s great. Jennifer, did you want to add anything to that? As far as how the program works?

Jennifer: Maybe I’ll just amplify a little bit that last point that Brad was making about the EPA recommendation. I think that’s something that we could point to where we would say designers can have confidence in both the process that he explained, but also the fact that it has been adopted by some of these different governmental and organizations and so on as people who have really combed through it and determined that it is a great tool to help them in their pursuit to have more sustainable choices.

Robert: How does the program then work in terms of addressing points or prerequisites and impact categories, things of that nature? What all does it cover?

Brad: Well, I think just simply it’s modeled after the LEED rating program. If you are looking at LEED and you understand that some credits are required and some points you get are voluntary, depending on what you’ve achieved with the program.

We have prerequisites as well. We have voluntary credits, most of the credits in the standard are voluntary. But you need a certain number of those to reach a certain level or a certain threshold, which in the certification program, we call LEVEL 1, LEVEL 2 or LEVEL 3. LEVEL 3 meaning that you’ve achieved more points over the course of your process than LEVEL 1 or 2.

The LEVEL certification program ensures that you can’t have a green product accumulating these points, and still have a brown company. While it is a product standard, we also measure the processes, where is it made and how, as well as what the corporation is doing. So, that’s when I get into brown companies.

You must measure there as well. We try to incentivize companies doing more and going further in that arena as well, even though it is a product standard.

Jennifer: So, it might sound a little complicated, and in fact it is. That is why we have a LEVEL certification. Because it really starts to become a meaningful shortcut to design practitioners, where they can have the confidence that environmental, typical-ecological type of concerns are covered.

Health and wellness are covered, social sustainability, social capital, and so on, are all contained within it.

As they’re making their furniture selections, any product that’s been certified to LEVEL will have gone through this very rigorous evaluation.

Robert: Sure. A lot of our listeners are probably familiar with LEVEL or have heard of it. But have there been any updates to it recently that they should be aware of?

Brad: Yes, there has. The program is about 10 years old. I think we put our first version out 10 years ago—2008 or 2009 or that area. And just last year, we published what was maybe the fifth or the sixth revision. It was a major update since we had it in the marketplace. And we are very excited about it.

The low emitting furniture is now furniture credit, that was voluntary in the past is now a prerequisite.

Designers would know that any furniture that is LEVEL certified also meets the BIFMA furniture emission standard to address indoor air quality.

We have criteria that has been added that mirrors the Healthier Hospital criteria. That is an optional credit. It’s not BIFMA’s intent to reinvent the wheel when we looked at health and wellness, and we see other programs that are moving in the right direction. We want to do as much as we can do to partner to bring those people behind the programs in as stakeholders in our process, tell us where it fits in the furniture world, and how we can I make a connection with those programs.

We have a number of those things in the new standard as well as ergonomics, lighting credit—that is brand new. And finally, the one I like is the Benefit Corporation or B Corp credit, as I call it.

It’s not a point for achieving or becoming a B Corporation. But it’s a point for using B Labs Assessment methodology, the owner of the B Corp program, they came to the table as a stakeholder and showed us how we could incorporate it and use the criteria.

That encourages the manufacturers to go forward on that social front with things that they can do to achieve more points for their product certification.

Robert: Sure. Brad, you mentioned earlier indoor air quality. And Jennifer, I think you mentioned health and wellness. Obviously, that’s a huge topic that is going on right now as we are dealing with the COVID pandemic. Can you talk about how LEVEL might address health and wellness as well?

Jennifer: Absolutely. It’s such an important point that you bring up and so timely, of course. Sustainability and wellness are really very overlapping concepts. When it comes to LEVEL, most of the criteria in LEVEL really does reflect on wellness to someone.

One aspect of this that maybe helps explain that point is chemical exposure. The criteria in LEVEL really addresses chemical exposure, not only to the people using the products in use—so that’s where some of the indoor air quality requirements that Brad mentioned would come into play—it also covers chemical exposure to the people in the manufacturing process, what they might have been exposed to in the making of the product itself.

I think a lot of your listeners will be familiar with the concept of a red list or something like that. There are several different ones out there. LEVEL has a very robust version of this, we call it Chemicals of Concern.

There’s a whole criterion, whether formaldehyde or things that are on the California list of carcinogens or just all these different sorts of tools that we pull into the LEVEL certification process to ensure that chemical exposure is addressed. Obviously, that has a direct impact on wellness all through the value chain.

Also, there is the whole section in LEVEL that is devoted specifically to social responsibility. This is becoming more common now, but as Brad said, LEVEL came out initially back in 2009, thereabouts and it was really a novel concept at that point, where it was not as common as part of one of these multi-attribute standards to have a whole section devoted to social responsibility and so, that very much overlaps with the wellness conversation.

It speaks to the practices that impact wellness in the communities where the company would operate, obviously their own workforce, but then even broader in the community, the labor practices, for example, and even the B Corp example that Brad was talking about is an example of the way we have continued to evolve and enhance this whole area around wellness and social responsibility.

Robert: The last thing I wanted to ask, because I know our listeners will be curious, is where can designers and specifiers find LEVEL products for their projects?

Jennifer: For all this complexity that we have been discussing, thankfully, finding the products is really very easy.

BIFMA maintains a registry that lists 100% of the products that have achieved LEVEL certification. Brad mentioned these thresholds of LEVEL 1, LEVEL 2 or LEVEL 3.

This is all identified on our online registry, which is on the web: You can go there and access the searchable database.

The number of products that are listed there is in flux all the time as new people would go through the process. But it’s been hovering around approximately 4,600 products for quite a while and continues to grow.

Across those products, that would represent 70 different brands that your listeners would be accustomed to looking at for commercial furniture products. So long story short, there’s a lot to choose from.

When I’m out and about talking to designers and design practitioners or just influencers who are in any way involved in the selection process for furniture, I recommend that they start at and see if they can meet the needs of their clients with products that have gone through this sustainability criteria that are certified.

There’s no additional cost. I think that’s a really important point. A lot of times, designers have an interest in having increasingly sustainable interiors. And sometimes there’s a price tag associated with that, and the project or the client may or may not be able to pursue that at a variety of levels.

LEVEL certification, any costs that had to be incurred has already been incurred by the manufacturers who had to perhaps change their processes or whatever in order to meet the criteria. There’s no additional cost to the client to the designer, so it is a great place to start.

I’m not saying you will find 100% of your needs there. But certainly, that is what we recommend.

Robert: That’s great. I know our listeners will appreciate having a one-stop shop where they can go for information. And that’s great, too, about there being no additional cost. I am sure that’s going to be attractive. This has been a great conversation, lots of really good information here. Thank you again, Brad and Jennifer, for being here. Appreciate it.

Jennifer: Thank you, Robert. Stay Safe!

Robert: Thanks, you, too. Well, that is it for now.

For our listeners out there, be sure to check back in soon as we have a lot of great podcasts coming up, including more from our How to Specify series, as well as a conversation I’ll be having with our good friend Jane Rohde of JSR Associates to find out what’s happening in the senior living market in light of the pandemic that I think you won’t want to miss.

Thanks again for tuning in and be well everyone.

[End transcript]

About our guests:

Jennifer Wammack is BIFMA’s Director of Outreach, a role created in 2017 to enhance engagement with influencers of the commercial built environment.

Since that time, Jennifer has been the organization’s brand ambassador, communicating BIFMA’s message as the industry leader in developing furniture safety, durability, and sustainability standards that ensure product performance and inspire confidence.

Brad Miller is Director of Advocacy and Sustainability for BIFMA. He coordinates the organization’s government affairs and sustainability initiatives.

Before coming to BIFMA, Brad served on the staff of two members of the United States Congress and began his experience in government working with the Michigan State Legislature in 1977.

About BIFMA:
BIFMA is the not-for-profit trade association serving business and institutional furniture manufacturers. Since 1973, the organization has been the industry leader in developing furniture safety, durability, and sustainability standards that insure product performance and inspire confidence.

BIFMA educates the stakeholder community on the importance and proper use of these standards; provides industry statistics and forecasts to members and the public; and advocates for regulatory conditions that enhance value and foster innovation.

Experience other How to Specify topics:

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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