HOW GREEN BUSINESS IS GOOD BUSINESS

One of the current preoccupations of the World Green Building Council is to demonstrate how green business is good business, writes the BCFA’s Colin Watson.

The way it is presenting this argument is intriguing because as well as extolling the most anticipated benefts of green building design, such as lower energy bills, it is linking green building design with human factors such as productivity, wellness and worklife 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 and sophisticated approach to environmental issues and corporate social responsibility 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 it’s 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, accreditation 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 life cycle 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 don’t mind or even prefer. Provided that wear and tear occurs in the right ways and at the right time, they can give the product an air of maturity. This is often the case with leather, wood and 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 more environmentally friendly than a non-chromed 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 conficted priorities of a minority of organisations. In practice, the overwhelming majority of suppliers in the offce interiors sector have taken signifcant and genuine steps to deal with their environmental impact and a great many of them are 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.

To clarify on many of these issues the FEMB has taken the initiative and, through a five-year programme, is introducing a new composite Standard for sustainability, officially launched at Orgatec. The level sustainability Standard and certification scheme has been developed by industry specialists in Europe and with cooperation from experts in the USA. It will provide a major step forward in harmonising sustainability practices throughout the EU

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About Alys Bryan

Alys' experience as a furniture designer, along with her in-depth marketing knowledge, makes her uniquely placed to work with the BCFA as the Editor of Design Insider and run her marketing business, Method Communications.
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