Our sourcing assistants are often asked to recommend products that are ‘sustainable’. One of the biggest issues we face is actually defining what constitutes a sustainable product. With so many variables and a lack of universal measure of what sustainable is, it’s pretty hard to compare the environmental impact of different products (despite everyone’s best intentions!).
We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this in our team. After hours of discussion (and heated debate…), we’ve come to the view that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ here, and it’s important for everyone individually to know what aspects of sustainable design are important to them.
We’ve put together a post on ‘Sustainability Criteria’ for product sourcing, which should hopefully help you along the way.
There are 8 key areas to consider when assessing the sustainability of products.
- Materials: Consider the types of material used (and their concentration of natural resource) and also be sure the check where and how the materials were sourced. It is also important to avoid endangered materials, such as Rosewood and Ebony. Suppliers such as Jonathan Field can tell you the exact spot a tree used to create one of his tables was felled.
2. Production: Check how the supplier is optimising their production methods. There is likely to be waste within the production, but it is important to see how this waste is used. Benchmark for example keep all waste wood from their production, which then goes to provide energy for the workshops, to schools for their student workshops, or into other furniture pieces where possible.
3. Packaging: Has the packaging been optimised for the product and (crucially) has it been minimised? Abalon is a supplier who has designed their recycled cardboard packaging to fit, support and protect their product without the need for excess and non recyclable padding.
4. Energy Consumption: As well as the production of a product, the energy consumption of the final product should be considered. One of the biggest advancements in furniture and lighting has been LEDs. We have seen many suppliers generally move over to only offering LED bulbs – universally acknowledged as the leaders of the “designer lightbulb” are supplier Plumen who set out to make a useful technology more beautiful and desirable.
5. Transportation: This area breaks down into two sections; materials to manufacture and manufacture to end destination. Both are important steps of the product journey from design to end client. One supplier tackling how their product arrives to the end client is New Zealand based designer David Trubridge. Knowing that the majority of his designs are going to have to travel a long way, Trubridge has designed products that can be flat-packed resulting in less transportation space and in turn passing on better transport costs to the client too.
6. Product Lifecycle: Considering what happens to the product post use is also an important factor. Can the materials be recycled or reused? Will the material biodegrade? Or does it have to go straight to landfill? Product lifecycle is a key part of the brand Galapagos Furniture. They repurpose reclaimed and vintage chairs to give the furniture a new lease of life, often in collaboration with exciting textile designers.
7. Employee Conditions: We’ve all been made aware of the terrible conditions affecting workers in the fast-fashion industry but other industries are no exception, including furniture. If you have any doubts it’s important to check with a supplier just how their employees are treated and get images of the factories. One supplier aiming to give the textile industry and felt a better name is My Felt. They work with skilled Nepalese craftsmen and provide fair wages and working conditions. They’re also under the GoodWeave trade association, meaning that their working conditions can be inspected at any time.
8. Economic Contribution & Educational Impact: Almost in relation to employee conditions, the economic contribution and educational impact of a product is often difficult to assess but worthwhile thinking through. A supplier looking to create a positive economic contribution and in turn create an educational impact is A Rum Fellow. By working with Guatemalan and Andean weavers they are not only creating a social project to create guaranteed jobs for local craftsmen, but are educating other cultures to a traditional skill within weaving that could otherwise be lost.
There’s a lot of considerations here to think about, and most products won’t be sustainable in all the ways we’ve listed. Which is why we think it’s important to decide what sustainability means to you ahead of time so the process of discovering items becomes easier.
For further reading on the topic, check out the following links:
If you’re thinking about the sustainability of a given product, you can always ask the supplier directly through eporta. Otherwise, we have a keen interest in the topic in our team so you can always ask us for more insight if you’re looking at something in particular.