BIFMA Nears Green Standard

August 20, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Before the end of the year, members of the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association will vote on the adoption of a newly developed sustainable product standard for the office furniture industry.

The Sustainable Assessment Standard will be one of the first applications of sustainable development principles for an entire industry, said Bill Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group. BIFMA advocates for the industry and sets voluntary office furniture industry standards that support safe, healthy and sustainable environments.

BIFMA Executive Director Tom Reardon said customers drove the decision to develop the standard. Office furniture manufacturers, he said, are being increasingly pressured by customers to design and manufacture products in an environmentally safe, socially responsive and economically viable manner. According to Stough, one of the major drivers in the market is large furniture-buyers — federal and state governments, large service companies and international nonprofit organizations — that are specifying sustainable attributes in their purchasing bids.

“There has been an increasing trend in the whole green building, green construction movement, and a lot of architectural and design firms are taking a keen interest in that,” Reardon observed.

The problem was that firms were coming up with their own criteria or gravitating towards some proprietary protocols, and that fragmentation wasn’t serving anyone well, he explained. A common method of evaluating sustainable attributes was needed, so BIFMA took the lead and hired SRG in February 2006 to get the project off the ground.

Over the past 18 months, SRG has engaged more than 130 stakeholders in discussions on what the new standard should entail. Stakeholders include BIFMA members, regulators, nonprofits, end users, environmental groups, members of the architectural, design and manufacturing communities, and basically anyone who has a material interest in developing a standard, Stough said.

SAS establishes measurable performance criteria in the categories of materials, energy, human and ecosystem health and social responsibility. Each category has one or more prerequisites, and once those are met, users can rack up additional credits toward multiple levels of achievement in each category by meeting specific performance requirements. The accumulated credits earn them either platinum, silver or gold certification status. Users have to achieve all the prerequisites in each category before they can be eligible to go after any additional points, Stough noted. SAS is a voluntary standard, so manufacturers who see it as a value in the marketplace will likely be the ones to adopt it, he said.

As with anything new, there are early adopters and resisters and those that come to the party later, Reardon acknowledged, but BIFMA thinks that developing a standard is a proactive direction to take. If some companies don’t see the value of it right now, when they do see the need for it, it will be there, he said.

Stakeholders didn’t want to lock out small companies by setting the bar too high, but at the same time they didn’t want to set it so low that a company could simply continue doing what it’s doing and still be recognized as a sustainable company, Stough noted.

“That’s the role the prerequisites play: We feel that if an applicant meets all the prerequisites, they already have a baseline of best management practices that make them eligible to continue,” he explained.

Stakeholders will meet again Sept. 6 to review a final draft of the standard. If the BIFMA board approves the draft, ballots will be sent out to BIFMA members worldwide for their yay or nay vote. Once members are comfortable with it, there will be a broader vote by members of the industry, and if approved, it will move on to the American National Standards Institute for accreditation as a national industry standard.   

If or when the new standard is put in place, companies will probably start thinking very differently about how they design products, what kinds of components they put into products, and how safe those components are in terms of human and ecosystem health, Stough said — and that, by itself, is a huge transition. Reardon thinks companies that follow the standard will be more efficient and have a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

Some 50 percent to 60 percent of the world’s business and institutional office products are manufactured in West Michigan, Stough pointed out. He said this region’s office furniture industry is on the cutting edge of sustainable development compared with other industries whose customers have been less adamant about the environmental performance of the products they purchase. In his estimation, having a nationally recognized industry standard will help distinguish sustainable office products from other office products, and will help this region’s furniture designers and manufacturers maintain their environmental leadership position.

“I see this as a good thing for West Michigan as we, as a region, are steadily developing the knowledge, expertise and experience to lead the transition of designers and manufacturers toward more environmentally sustainable products and services,” Stough remarked.

“The evolving niche we are developing is part of a larger development in the new global knowledge economy.”     

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