Feb 25 2020

VDM column: Privatising sustainability

In our VDM column, Ursula Geismann, spokeswoman and trend analyst for the Association of the German Furniture Industry (VDM), discusses the hot topic of sustainability, how this factor can be made visible when it comes to furniture and the responsibility of the industry.

One look at society shows that the concept of sustainability is enormously popular at the moment. In 2019, the Fridays for Future movement had a powerful media impact, because it reflected the exact concerns underlying the current wave of feeling experienced by many social groups. The movement is focused on the question of how environmentally friendly consumer behaviour can be encouraged on matters relating to energy, water, transport, diet and industrial products.

The issue now affects not only governments and societies, but also each individual at a personal level. The individualisation of responsibility therefore now goes hand in hand with the important individualisation megatrend. The transfer of the ownership of sustainability into the private sphere (i.e. “privatising” the issue) explains the current popularity of this model. Even at nursery, then in school, on TV programmes, online and in the press, an environmentally aware, sustainable lifestyle is a major recurring theme. 

Today, sustainability is always mentioned when foodstuffs come from an organic farm or a local source, when clothing meets an ecological standard for textiles and when coffee is produced according to the principles of solidarity and fair trade. When it comes to furniture, the issue has been playing a growing role for some time now due to enquiries relating to recycling or upcycling. We anticipate that an increasing number of consumers will explicitly ask for sustainable furniture

Sustainability in furniture is an end-to-end issue

But what does sustainable furniture really mean? There are many factors involved in furniture sustainability. Firstly, it comes down to wood as the original construction material being a renewable raw material as well as an important means of storing CO2. Wood is found in the vast majority of furniture items. With regard to other materials, the industry focuses on protecting the environment and conserving resources from procurement through to processing.

After all, the choice of materials is itself a determining factor for whether a piece of furniture can be broken down into its individual components and recycled after its long service life. Secondly, there is the matter of the health and safety of employees working in production facilities. Germany and Europe as a whole have high standards in this respect when compared internationally. The long service life of furniture produced in Germany and Europe is another factor in its sustainability.

Furniture is not a short-lived purchase; it’s kept in households for years, if not decades. Alongside these quality-related aspects, the design or style of the furniture must also be taken into consideration when it comes to aspirations of sustainability. Sober, understated design has more chance of lasting than an overly faddish or trendy look. 

Quality labels for the climate

Against this backdrop, the German Quality Association for Furniture (DGM) has launched two important quality labels onto the market. Since January 2016, it has offered its members the chance to sign up to a “Climate Pact” (Klimapakt). The Climate Pact is based on a company’s CO2 emissions or carbon footprint. On the basis of this calculation, the CO2 generated is offset with certificates through worldwide projects.

Furthermore, the DGM has established a quality mark for low-emissions furniture. The emissions label gives consumers information about the emission of pollutants, thereby protecting them against damage to their health and in turn protecting the environment. “Green” products are gaining more and more ground in the furniture industry. PEFC and FSC-certified wood and textiles certified according to eco-standards have long been at the forefront of environmental labelling.

Incidentally, there is also a growing demand for vegan furniture in view of climate change. Around 85 per cent of all furniture is vegan, but this isn’t being promoted through marketing (yet). A prestigious international hotel chain sees this differently and now offers the world’s first vegan hotel room in London. It’s also important in vegan culture to move away from synthetic material and towards future-orientated materials from botanical sources. That’s why the floorboards, desk, sideboard and bed are made of wood. 

The furniture industry has a responsibility

Just like all other industries, the furniture industry has a particular responsibility. After all, consumers are guided by what is available on the market — they have no other choice. The German furniture industry can now attract custom through the fact that it is finally making the subject of sustainability a prominent feature of its marketing.

This could be an excellent opportunity for German producers to expand their market share in Germany, Europe, and the wider world in a responsible manner. Of course, we would need our partners in the furniture retail trade to be actively involved in a campaign of this kind. 

Ursula Geismann, spokeswoman and trend analyst for the Association of the German Furniture Industry (VDM), Born in Westphalia in 1964, Ursula Geismann studied economics and political science at the Universities of Mainz and Hamburg. She then worked for some years in the field of market, opinion and social research before she joined Germany’s wood and furniture industry associations (Verbände der Holz- und Möbelindustrie) in Bad Honnef in 1997, where she has been employed as their press spokeswoman ever since. She also monitors and analyses design developments and trends in architecture, home living and furniture. She is a committed supporter of the megatrend theory, which she believes can be applied to any industry and any product to safeguard its future viability. 

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