BIFMA Unveils Sustainability Vision

April 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Four years in the making, The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) International last month released its Sustainability Guidelines For Office Furniture Manufacturers and Suppliers at its management conference in Florida.

Designed as an add-on for an existing environmental management system like ISO-140001, the guidelines serve as a roadmap for any office furniture manufacturer or supplier to become a sustainable company.

Its first drafts were originally circulated in 2001 as the Sustainability Principles of the former Right Place Inc. Office Industry Furniture Council. When the council merged with BIFMA, the guidelines became a product of the Sustainability Subcommittee of the BIFMA Supply Chain Management Committee.

Over the past year, the final document was amended and ratified by a nearly unanimous vote.

“It’s unique for an industry to go through an effort to be sustainable and to create a roadmap like this, a guideline for every member of our industry from the largest to the smallest to look at and to model their work toward becoming a sustainable company,” said Brad Miller, BIFMA’s manager of communications and government affairs.

“These guidelines are historic, not only for the office furniture industry, but for any industry,” said Interface Fabrics Divisional Vice President Mark LaCroix, subcommittee chair and document coauthor. “This is the first time that any industry collectively has tried to define for its members what sustainability means and what they might do to move toward a more sustainable model.”

The guidelines are not prescriptive, LaCroix said. Instead, they are intended as a base set of guidelines. Of the 250 manufacturers and suppliers within BIFMA, several have undertaken sustainability efforts of varying scope and scale, including local OEMs Herman Miller, Steelcase and Haworth, and suppliers like Interface Fabrics.

LaCroix’s concern was that there was no industry consensus as to what constituted a sustainability initiative. Furthermore, there was no guidance for members as to what kind of activities would move them toward a sustainable model.

“Now when one of our members claim they are progressing on a sustainable development journey, there are minimums they have to meet,” said Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group and another author of the guidelines. “Everyone knows now there is a set of criteria they must meet now to say that.”

While many of its largest members have been working toward sustainability for a number of years, Miller said, the guidelines will provide a tool for its smaller members to develop programs of their own.

“If you’re a small company in a tough time, how much of a resource allocation can you make in this area?” Miller asked. “It’s a paramount question. Sustainability has proven itself through the triple bottom line. If done correctly, they will not be losing money but gaining efficiencies.

“There’s money laying around the shop in every corner,” he said. “These gains can be realized by almost every company. As a trade association, we can help facilitate those gains.”

“Not every BIFMA member is a Steelcase-, Haworth- or Herman Miller-sized company with lots of staff and resources,” agreed Haworth Senior Project Engineer-Environmental Jim Kozminski. “We wanted to create something that could be used by even the smaller companies.”

Within the guidelines, BIFMA has stated a commitment to fostering partnerships between manufacturers, suppliers, end users and the science community. Through these it hopes to provide education in sustainable design and develop tools for communicating its progress.

“Most trade associations are reactive,” Stough said. “It’s rare for one — and a major trade association like BIFMA — to be forward-thinking enough to say they think sustainability is a major issue and then to take steps beyond that like this.”

Kozminski agreed.

“It’s a landmark for competitors in a very competitive marketplace to work together and share information on something like this, to cooperate and share best practices and share ideas,” he said.

Kozminski noted that the office furniture industry was in a unique position over other industries to lead sustainable business efforts because it was being pushed both by its internal codes of practice and the marketplace.

Miller, a 10-year BIFMA veteran, believes sustainability is a natural progression from the trend of designers’ and occupants’ interest in improving environmental qualities of the office like ergonomics, acoustics and air quality.

“They want to connect more and more,” Miller said. “There has been a trend toward looking not just internally at the office, but beyond. We’re doing the right thing for the people in the structure, but it’s also very much a way to sustain ourselves.

“It’s been a difficult time the last four years. Instinctual feelings toward survival have been heightened. We’re coming out of that downturn with the realization that to sustain ourselves in future good times and bad, you need to have products that your end user finds important to them as they find their own sustainability in the workplace.”    

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