Held To Higher Standards

June 23, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — BIFMA International — the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer’s Association — is closing in on a sustainability standard for the business and institutional furniture industry.

The association is in the midst of an official vote by the ANSI (American National Standards Institute), which will end July 1. BIFMA has initiated a 45-day open public comment period for those affected to share their input on the standard.

Ballot results from BIFMA, a membership-driven trade association, stand at 24 affirmative, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention. The current ANSI vote includes a much broader spectrum of stakeholders, including government, customer, academia and industry representation.

Tom Reardon, executive director of BIFMA, believes the new standard will create unity in the industry. He said the current sustainability standards are proprietary and many people do not understand them.

“They are developed by a certain body, and you pay that group for certification to get their standard,” said Reardon. “BIFMA prefers an open, balanced consensus process like the American National Standards Institute consensus process. … It’s an open method of evaluating the sustainable attributes of furniture products,” he said.

“There are a number of different protocols — private proprietary protocols — that manufacturers can have their products certified to, but that entity that created the protocol is typically the only one that really knows what is entailed in it, and the only one that can certify a product. The value in using an open protocol is that anyone can read it, anyone can participate in the process, anyone can use the standard and know exactly what you’re doing, what you have to do to comply with the standard. And any accredited third-party certifier can use the standard as the basis of their certification program.”

Reardon said the only revenue created will be from the one-time fee for obtaining the standard documents.

“Once the standard is out there and in the public domain, we’re kind of out of it,” he said. “We don’t run a certification program, we don’t certify products, we don’t list products.”

The drafting of the standard took into consideration all aspects of sustainability for the industry — from raw materials to energy to waste. Due to the inclusive nature of the standard, Reardon says he has been getting feedback that the template may be used for many other industries as well.

“We’ve spent a lot of work, invested a lot of intellectual capital, and there’s no sense in someone running off (and) reinventing the wheel if there’s already a reasonable model to use and build upon,” said Reardon.

Reardon believes the standard is to the point that it is ready for use in the field, and that it will be refined through that process.

The idea for setting an industry standard started three years ago, with the initial thought being to figure out what kind of sustainability standards the industry could use. BIFMA conducted a heavy search for any standards that might be already established that it could adapt or support. The association did not find anything suitable and decided to start creating a standard from scratch using the open ANSI standard process. This included bringing together various stakeholders and asking anyone who was interested to help support the effort.

In June 2007, the association partnered formally with the textile industry and carpet industry, which were both creating sustainability standards through NSF International, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization dealing in standards development, product certification, education and risk-management for public health and safety.

Then, in fall 2007, BIFMA conducted an association ballot for members to test out the standard and offer comments.

“We had been sitting in classrooms for two years drafting this document, and a lot of it was theory and hypothesis — you know, ‘We think this will work,’” said Reardon. “That generated scores of comments.”

The stakeholders group rejoined and analyzed the comments to make changes to the standard. The process lasted from February to April of this year, and by late May, Reardon said the group felt the standard was ready for the official ANSI ballot of the consensus body, which is where the standard is currently.

In August, BIFMA will take comments received from that ballot and, depending on the extent of the comments, will then refine the standard again in hopes of having an ANSI-approved standard before the end of the year. 

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