We’re living in a time of great change. The global conversation around environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is driving companies to embed more sustainable practices in their business going forward.
Coming out of a global pandemic, companies will be defined not just by how they treat their employees and customers, but by their impact on the world.
Greater understanding around environmental pressures, coupled with pressures from a more engaged workforce, is causing businesses to prioritise more sustainable choices around office design and furniture.
There are many ways to design a workspace with sustainability in mind. Using energy efficient lighting, low-emission materials and office furniture made from recycled items can help companies to reduce their carbon footprint.
But the benefits of a sustainable workplace go beyond the environmental impact.
Making sustainable choices serves your people as well as the environment. It can enhance their experience, boost productivity and improve the quality of their lives, all while reducing the demand on the environment.
When fitting out or refurbishing your office, every choice you make impacts your carbon footprint and the wellbeing of your employees.
Buildings have a big impact on the environment, both directly and indirectly. It's estimated that globally, buildings account for almost 40% of all carbon emissions.
During construction, occupancy and renovation, buildings use energy, water and raw materials, generate waste, and emit potentially harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Poorly designed and constructed buildings use more precious natural resources, increasing the demand and contributing to global warming.
‘Green’ buildings, on the other hand, not only reduce or eliminate negative impacts on the environment by using less water, energy and natural resources, but they can also have a positive impact on the environment, by generating their own energy or increasing biodiversity.
Beyond the environmental gains, green buildings are cheaper to operate. But the
benefits that often resonate the most are how green buildings positively affect people’s health, due to cleaner air and water and less exposure to toxins.
In the UK, under the Climate Change Act 2008, the Government target is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from buildings by at least 80% by 2050. For this to happen, direct building CO2 emissions need to halve by 2030.
Globally, commitments to net zero energy and zero carbon emissions buildings are gaining traction. The World Building Council (WGBC) is supporting net zero buildings through it’s new, whole life vision for total decarbonisation of the built environment.
Going a step further, the carbon negative office generates more energy via renewable and carbon neutral sources than it needs to meet its own energy demands. The Powerhouse Telemark office in Norway, featuring a large photovoltaic canopy covering the roof, has been designed to produce enough surplus renewable energy to compensate for the total carbon consumed by the office over a 60-year lifespan.
Over the last 30 years, growing awareness of the environmental impact of buildings has led to the creation of a number of green building standards, certifications and rating systems. These methods exist to help guide and demonstrate efforts to reduce the environmental impact of buildings through sustainable design and practices.
Today, more and more companies are looking to these methods when designing and fitting out their office spaces. Doing so allows them to create workplaces that not only reduce their environmental impact, but that benefit their people too.
A study led by the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment looked at workers’ experience in “green” vs “non-green” buildings.
They found that building occupants in high-performing, green-certified office environments scored 26% higher on tests of cognitive function, had 30% fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, and had 6% higher sleep quality scores than those in high-performing but non-certified buildings.
Environmental assessment methods exist to help guide, demonstrate and document efforts to create sustainable workplaces. These are the 4 main ones:
First published by BRE (Building Research Establishment) in 1990, BREEAM was the world’s first environmental assessment method for new building designs. Over the years BREEAM has been regularly updated and now applies to all stages of the built environment lifecycle, from new construction to in-use and refurbishment. BREEAM is now applied in its various forms in over 50 countries, with certified assessments in the UK, France, Italy and Poland.
The technical standard is divided into 4 parts. Projects are assessed to a combination of these parts, depending on the scope:
BREEAM measures sustainable value in a series of 10 categories: Management, Health & Wellbeing, Energy, Transport, Water, Materials, Waste, Land Use and Ecology, Pollution, Innovation.
Each category is divided into a range of assessment issues, each with its own aim, target and benchmarks. When these are reached, as determined by a third party BREEAM assessor, the project scores points or ‘credits’. Credits are awarded for things like reusing furniture, using timber that is FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or PEFC certified, and furniture items with EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations).
Once the assessor has reviewed all the information, they submit their assessment to the certification body (BRE) for a final decision. The project is awarded a performance rating determined by the number of credits achieved. The highest rating is 6 stars, based on an ‘Excellent’ score of more than 85%.
After the launch of BREEAM, the US Green Building Council followed suit and launched LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in 1998.
Like BREEAM, LEED is available for all building types and phases, from new construction to interior fit-outs.
Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points for various green building strategies across 5 categories: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality.
Points are awarded for things like responsible sourcing of raw materials, providing individual thermal comfort controls for at least 50% of individual occupant spaces, and providing outdoor space greater than or equal to 30% of the total site area.
Based on the number of points achieved, a project earns one of four levels of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
The documentation required to achieve a LEED rating is less intense than for BREEAM and is not independently audited. The qualification to become a LEED assessor is open to all, and the standard is gaining popularity globally as a result.
SKA was launched in 2009 by RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and was developed with the input of designers, contractors, corporate occupiers, managing agents and consultants.
Whilst there are some similarities to BREEAM and LEED, SKA is different in that it is project driven and only applies to the office fit-out (CAT A and CAT B), irrespective of the base building. As such, SKA is the only tool that measures only what is within the specific project scope.
A SKA rating covers 100 individual measures of good practices across 8 sustainability issues: Energy use, Carbon dioxide emissions, Materials, Waste, Water, Wellbeing, Pollution, Transport.
Examples of criteria include:
The assessment process involves identifying measures in scope, gathering evidence to prove that what had been specified has been delivered and that performance and waste benchmarks have been achieved. Projects are awarded either a Bronze, Silver or Gold SKA rating, plus a percentage score.
Learn more about SKA in this blog post.
The WELL Building Standard was first launched in 2014 and is the world’s first building standard to focus on enhancing people’s health and wellbeing through the built environment. It is administered by the Internal WELL Building Institute (WBI) and like the other environmental assessment methods, is a performance-based building certification programme.
The most up to date and rigorously tested version of the standard is WELL v2, which draws on the expertise of thousands of WELL users, practitioners, medical professionals, public health experts and building scientists around the world.
WELL v2 covers 10 concepts that impact human health and wellbeing: Air, Water, Nourishment, Light, Movement, Thermal Comfort, Sound, Materials, Mind, Community.
‘Movement’, for example, encourages physical activity and ergonomic comfort. One area it focuses on is ergonomic workstation design. For at least 25% of workstations, employees should have the ability to alternate between sitting or standing.
'Materials’ focuses on reducing human exposure to chemicals that may impact health during the construction, remodelling, furnishing and operation of the building. For example, restricting VOC emissions from furniture, architectural and interior products.
Projects pursuing WELL Certification earn points based on performance outcomes and can achieve one of our four certification levels: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
You can learn more about how WELL helps to create better office experiences in this blog post.
The choice of which method a company chooses to adopt usually comes down to the specific nature of the project. The design process should come first. Then you can look to see which system works best for the design.
BREEAM vs LEED
Historically, BREEAM has been the method of choice in the UK because it is better adapted to UK legislation and standards. However, LEED is considered the worldwide leader everywhere except the UK. Although it is starting to gain ground here too.
What about SKA?
SKA is generally considered to be more flexible than BREEAM and LEED, as it only scores the project on good practice measures that are relevant to the project. Assessor fees also tend to be lower. As such, SKA tends to be the preference on smaller projects.
Some companies are choosing to pursue more than one method. In fact, the institutions behind BREEAM and WELL have created the guide ‘Assessing Health and Wellbeing in Buildings’ to make it easier for those wishing to obtain both a certified BREEAM rating and a WELL Certified rating.
LEED and WELL can also work alongside each other. There is a whole body of guidance to show how LEED can assist in meeting WELL and vice versa.
Using one of these rating systems will result in a more sustainable workplace, helping to reduce the environmental impact of your business. But there are other benefits too. A ‘green’ building certification can:
Reduce your operating costs
One of the key benefits of adhering to the good practices outlined in each of the certifications is the potential reduction in operating costs due to improved efficiency and energy savings.
Boost your brand image
Achieving one of these certifications sends a clear message to the world, including your customers, employees and stakeholders, that your company takes sustainability seriously.
Improve the health and wellbeing of your workforce
Buildings and products that are bad for the environment are usually bad for us as humans too. By adhering to the best practice measures offered by BREEAM, LEED, SKA and WELL, you serve your people as well as the environment.
Help you attract and retain the best talent
Workers today are more concerned about environmental issues such as climate change, and want to work for companies that share their values.
In a survey of more than 2,000 UK office workers:
With employees placing a high value on a company’s green credentials, a high rating from BREEAM, LEED, SKA or WELL will undoubtedly help you to attract more talent - and retain valued team members.
The environmental impact of furniture is dependent on what happens at the very beginning of the product life cycle - in the design process. As The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, champion of the circular economy point out:
In the circular economy, office furniture items should be built using few but high-quality materials that are designed to last and that can be reused, recycled or repurposed. In this world, what could be waste is always transformed into a resource.
While no material is perfect, some are more sustainable than others.
Using raw materials that are readily available and naturally renewable can help to yield a low environmental impact.
Making wooden products typically involves little waste, and any that is produced is often biodegradable.
The use of environmentally friendly fabrics and upholstery is equally important.
Manufacturers are also looking to recycled materials to reduce the carbon emissions associated with furniture items. For example, chairs and acoustic panels made from recycled plastic.
Furniture production can often involve the use of harmful chemicals, with certain foams, glues, paints and treatments emitting gases both during production and long after.
As well as contributing to the toxicity of the environment, use of these substances can endanger the health of people manufacturing the product and the end users of that same product - your staff.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from building materials and furniture are a major source of indoor air pollution. They have been linked to nausea, fatigue and headaches.
There are many different chemicals classed as VOCs including formaldehyde, benzene and ethylene. Formaldehydes are particularly concerning. Long term exposure to low levels in the air or on the skin can cause respiratory problems and skin irritation, while higher concentrations can be dangerous to life.
With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that VOCs have also been found to have a detrimental effect on cognitive function. Another study by ‘Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment’ found that:
Diane Karner, Design Team Leader at IE, shares her views about the dangers lurking behind certain design choices:
As Karner explains, the choices that suppliers make, and the requirements of customers, can all help affect change at the manufacturing level to bring safer, more environmentally friendly products to the market:
Once a piece of furniture has been made, how it gets to you will also have an impact on the environment.
Transporting both raw materials and finished products around the world increases the carbon footprint of furniture. As do the single-use plastics such as styrofoam and airbags that have been the norm for packaging for years.
Now, recycled and recyclable packaging are becoming more popular, along with lightweight biodegradable materials that reduce energy waste in transportation and natural waste at the end of use.
Packaging made from mushrooms is also gaining ground as an environmentally friendly alternative to styrofoam.
But it’s worries about landfill that often rank highest when thinking about the impact of furniture on the environment.
When office furniture falls out of use, whether through wear and tear, breakages, or as a result of office moves and refurbishments, it often ends up as waste in landfill.
Over the years the figures have been staggering. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP):
In Europe as a whole, it seems, 80-90% of all furniture ends its life in this way. And in the US, an estimated 9 million tons of office furniture ends up in landfill every year.
This waste is only likely to continue as businesses re-configure office spaces post-Covid, with some reports suggesting nearly half of office furniture will become redundant.
A culture of ‘fast furniture’ that has made virtue of cheap, insubstantial and disposable products is much to blame for the vast amount of office furniture products that are finding their way into landfill.
The longer a piece of furniture can remain an effective tool within the workplace, the more sustainable it is.
That’s why it’s important to avoid poorly made products and instead opt for products that are built to last, and that can be repaired and upgraded.
Organisations are recognising that linear models of buy, consume and dispose are more expensive for everyone in the long term. Instead, a circular economy where we build for durability and second life - to repair, reuse and regenerate - can make sustainability a win-win situation for everyone.
Determining the carbon footprint of a product is a complex process. Getting an exact value is difficult due to all the interactions of production, materials and the natural processes involved in storing and releasing carbon. It’s for this reason that carbon footprint calculations are well educated estimates.
Estimated carbon footprint of office furniture items:
If the average task chair generates 72 kilos of CO2 over its lifespan, every time an organisation replaces that chair, they’re responsible for pumping another 72 kilos of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere in a vicious cycle of ‘pollute, dispose, replace’.
According to The Carbon Trust:
Committing to sustainable office furniture means considering each stage of the life cycle of a product, from design and materials to manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, until the end of its life.
This means choosing furniture items:
All these are good examples of how potential environmental damage can be offset through better design, more careful procurement and commitment to extending the life cycle of chosen products on all sides of the buying equation.
Manufacturers and suppliers are doing more to facilitate responsible decision-making to drive less damaging choices. Orangebox, for example, are offering extended warranty periods and service plans to encourage responsible use.
Some products come with certifications or labels that make it easy for you to assess how environmentally friendly they are. Each of these qualifies for many building rating systems, including BREEAM, LEED, SKA and WELL Building:
Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) - an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent information about the life-cycle environmental impact of the product.
SCS Indoor Advantage™ - an indoor air quality (IAQ) standard for furniture and building materials that certifies interior products for low VOC emissions.
Various certificates from recognised bodies can also verify the sustainability of a product, some examples include – Health Product Declaration, Declare Label, Living Building Challenge’s Red List and Cradle to Cradle.
And when you no longer need those furniture items?
Where possible, reuse should always be prioritised to avoid items ending up in landfill. End of use programmes where furniture is brought back, donated, or recycled can help businesses dispose of unwanted office furniture in socially, economically and environmentally responsible ways.
Despite the vast amount of progress that has already been made, there is still more both manufacturers and customers can do to keep the environmental agenda moving forward.
As the Ellen Macarthur Foundation point out, the ultimate aim would be a completely ‘circular economy’ where products and materials are ‘kept in use’, potentially forever. And in the future, they hope carbon negative companies will use ‘waste’ in new and innovative ways.
This means not just using wood from forests that are replanted, but not using ‘virgin’ wood at all. Not just using plastics that can be recycled, but extracting plastics already in the environment and reusing them.
Steelcase has highlighted these possibilities. By building products with ‘planked veneer’ (oak and walnut pieces left over from other processes) that cannot be used in other products, they’ve ‘saved $1 million and over 400 trees’. Steelcase’s ‘Ocean to Office’ initiative also sees them using plastics dumped in the sea to weave new, durable and aesthetically unique materials for use in acoustic screening.
Another trend contributing towards the circular economy is remanufacturing - the process of taking existing furniture and remaking it to ‘as new’ condition.
As well as being better for the environment, remanufactured office furniture tends to be more reliable as parts have been stress-tested in actual office use and any structural flaws filtered out. And because it requires disassembly and assembly, it creates twice as many jobs as assembling from virgin materials.
Though sometimes confused with ‘second hand’, ‘used’ or ‘repaired’, by definition, remanufactured products should be as good as - or even better quality - than other products. The Furniture Industry Research Association’s Remanufacturing Standard published in 2019 aims to give confidence to both manufacturers and customers that ‘second life’ furniture does not mean ‘second best’.
Coming out of the global pandemic, the spotlight is on businesses to operate in more sustainable ways.
Rather than stalling momentum on environmentally focused initiatives, organisations have stepped on the gas, spurred on not only by the increasing environmental crisis but also by the demands of a more eco-aware workforce and a drive to create a better working experience for their people.
The good news is there are many manufacturers already adopting a circular economy mindset and creating more sustainable office furniture products. We’re also turning a corner now where, rather than the ‘sustainable’ option being more expensive for businesses, the ‘right thing to do’, is also increasingly, the best commercial option.
The challenge for organisations is cutting through the noise to find the right sustainable office furniture products for them. Environmental assessment methods can help guide companies on what they should be looking for. Office furniture consultancies can also act as a guide to help companies navigate the changing landscape and find solutions that not only reduce their environmental impact, but that benefit their people too.