The problem with the loops

How does stock furniture become circular?

Thinking sustainably about new products from the outset and setting up production in such a way that circular value cycles are created is becoming increasingly common. But what about existing products? Andre Hempel examines the issue and presents first approaches to solutions.

Sep 14 2022

The furniture industry in Germany currently has a linear structure. With regard to a more efficient use of resources and more circularly oriented business models, starting points must be evaluated and incentive systems must be created in order to bring the raw materials and products used into supply cycles and to keep them there.

With regard to the products and the integration into circular value creation cycles, 2 entry scenarios can be identified.

For new products, the entry into circular value-added cycles is mandatorily anchored in the design. Here, criteria such as modularity, reparability and material use must be integrated on the product side to enable multi-use and reusability. The design process also determines the application of the subsequent steps (basic R strategies).

For inventory products, it is currently more difficult to move into circular models. Many furniture products already bring a sustainable characteristic for a circular approach - they are already designed for longevity by their very nature. Currently, however, the existing life cycles are seldom utilized or the path after use ultimately leads only to recycling (in the case of wood as a raw material, to incineration). This is also shown in the current report "Evaluation of the collection and recycling of selected waste streams for the further development of the circular economy" by the Federal Environment Agency.

For the development of recyclable processes, corresponding sustainable or circular product criteria are necessary.

© canva

Longevity as an entry point

As already mentioned, many existing furniture products are characterized by one important sustainable feature - longevity. If one wants to design circular loops based on this - except finally with recycling - producers face many challenges at first glance:

  • Business model: company structures are mostly linear with the corresponding costing models (product sales) without takeback options (e.g. rebuy),
  • Company size: The company sizes are traditionally medium-sized (SME) and structurally not prepared for takeback processes (e.g. logistics, storage, preparation),
  • Materials: The variety of materials used is basically high. Even if wood dominates in different variants, glass, metals, ceramics, plastics, textiles and foams, among others, are fixed components in manufacturing and supplier parts,
  • Manufacturing: Modular manufacturing as an input variable for medium loops (e.g. repair, refurbishment, re-manufacturing) is (almost) non-existent - glued, screwed, pegged and coated for eternity,
  • Customer relationship: Traditionally grown, for many manufacturers the only customers are the purchasing associations in the respective furniture segments. Reflections of (changing) customer requirements run in long feedback loops.

But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities.

Ways to more loops

The entry into a recyclable structure for inventory products can be made before recycling by setting up a "takeback" system. This enables used and suitable products - including their accessories - to be returned to options for reprocessing (e.g. refurbishment, repair) and thus to a longer and repeatable reuse.

Possible takeback approaches result from material recycling from production (e.g., residues, offcuts), intensification of second-life models (e.g., rebuy, second-hand channels), conversion to usage-based business models (e.g., rental, product-as-a-service) and expansion of the recycling spectrum (e.g., material separation, provision of spare parts).

Interessting approach in the Netherlands 

A cross-company approach to material recycling is demonstrated by a project from the Netherlands for the furniture industry - Wood Loop.

Koninklijke CBM, the Dutch trade association for the interior design and furniture industry, initiated the project together with partners at the end of 2021 and started it with a pilot phase in February 2022.

In a possible material cycle, the interface is primarily between utilization and recycling, via the establishment and expansion of diverse takeback solutions for the reuse of raw materials, materials, product parts and products.

© labofrent

The starting point for a new approach for the furniture industry in Germany is the "RE:Furniture Initiative Germany - RE:FID". With the involvement of all relevant stakeholders from business, society and politics, an actionable, economically - and ecologically sensible framework is to be developed as a basis and brought to implementation.

The goals: To elicit best practice examples and make them visible, to develop complementary and additional practical solution approaches and to initiate new models for cooperation (and coopetition) from them.

What is needed for this?
A clear goal and framework, a new stakeholder map for collaboration and an innovative open organizational structure.

We'll take a look at that in another post soon.

The author is co-founder of the RE:FURNITURE INITIATIVE DEUTSCHLAND (RE:FID), described in this article.

Contact persons
Portrait of Andre Hempel
Andre Hempel Senior Management
lab of rent
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