By Oliver Cripps, Sustainability Manager, Herman Miller
COP26 has bought to light the need for organisations across the world to take urgent responsibility for climate change and the pledge towards achieving net zero. Speaking at the COP26 climate summit, Chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed the UK was leading the world in becoming the “first-ever net zero aligned global financial centre”.
Adding to this, the UK has become the first G20 country to make recommendations by the global Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) mandatory, meaning that by April 2022, around 1,300 of the country’s largest businesses will have to disclosure their exposure to climate risks.
But becoming net zero and moving to a more sustainable future goes further than just choosing the right financial investments and complying with climate risk disclosure regulations. An intrinsic part of this responsibility is also about considering their workplace sustainability strategy. These means making fundamental changes now, in order to protect the planet for the future. But how do you ensure your business is making the right choices?
The starting point is to look at a product’s lifecycle assessment. This method measures impact through the raw materials used, production, the use of the product and then end of life. From these assessments, businesses can get a clear measurement of carbon emission, water, and a range of other impact metrics. Raw materials and production are the two key stages with the biggest impact to look out for – and they are also the stages that manufacturers have the most control over. But design responsibility for products doesn’t end at the point of sale: it’s equally as important to consider end of life plans too.
Many manufacturers are being innovative and looking at ways to reduce the impact of their products by making them last longer. For many, this means increasing the sharing, leasing, reusing, and recycling of existing materials. Businesses are also trying to include more recycled materials in the production of their furniture – including ‘ocean-bound plastic’.
According to the Next Wave initiative, a group of industry leaders collaborating on its use, Ocean-bound plastic is “mismanaged waste”, i.e. plastic that has not yet found its way into the ocean, but found within 50 kilometres of a coastline. It’s estimated that 80% of the ocean’s plastic contamination originated from land. This plastic is then washed, sanitised, and processed into raw material flakes or pellets which are then used to make new products. Taking this approach eliminates coastal plastic, helps the planet and reduces waste for local people. It also fosters employment by integrating local workers into the supply chain, doing good for communities while reducing the environmental impact of any product made making the social impact measurable.
Manufacturers are really thinking about the lifecycle of the product now, making disposing of the product after use much more straight forward too, with products stripped down into recyclable and reusable parts.
There is a greater recognition that sustainability is equally as important as other measures such as cost, time, and durability. While most organisations want to do the right thing, many struggle to measure the impact of their sustainability decisions. When looking at the impact of waste or electricity usage, its relatively easy to quantify the impact on the business. The same can be said about reducing the level of potentially climate harmful investments, as this can be illustrated through fund performance, for example. But when choosing more sustainable products, it is not so easy to measure the impact, in terms of sales, or exposure.
Another way to measure ROI of sustainability choices, and potentially the most important measure of all is the impact on employees. The workplace and the design of the office has a huge impact on employee wellbeing, so providing an environment that is safe and representative of the company’s wider sustainability goals is always going to be a good thing. This is important in attracting and retaining talent and helping productivity.
From a design point of view, substituting problematic materials can be tricky, but manufacturers and designers are busy innovating to bring sustainable products to the fore.
Taking the first step
Over the last few years, organisations have become much more aware of the impact of their actions and are doing all they can to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future. And while choosing the right products for the office is just one small part of a wider sustainability initiative, it is a huge and positive step forwards.
It’s vital that sustainability metrics are judged just as importantly as commercial rent costs, sundries requirements and other measures of a successful office space. Frameworks like USGBC’s LEED, or BREEAM can provide excellent models to evaluate the sustainability of your building project. Alternatively, adopting criteria or standards such as the Furniture Industry Sustainability Programme to screen products and suppliers can help to drive good outcomes.
These considerations need to move beyond values and into action, and are just as important whether a financial institution is halfway through an office lease, or if they’re moving to a new premises. Choosing the right materials, considering renewable energy and energy storage are just some steps businesses can take now, and with the right reuse and recycle programmes in place, organisations can ensure that their existing office assets don’t go to waste.