Sustainability in the furniture industry:

why it’s time Eastern European manufacturers prioritized eco-friendly initiatives

When I lived in Moscow a year ago, a Swedish friend came to stay with me and was shocked that I only had one bin. In Sweden, he explained, they have multiple recycling bins for different waste. Whereas in Russia, they still don’t even have a used glass bottle collection.

It highlighted how behind much of Eastern Europe is in terms of sustainability and the region’s furniture industry is no exception. While some businesses are starting to conduct more environmentally-friendly practices, the majority of furniture companies across Eastern Europe are years behind the green ideals of the West.

Why have Eastern European manufacturers fallen behind?

Twenty years ago, before joining the EU, sustainable development was an ambitious challenge for many Eastern European countries (ECC). Back then, life was overshadowed by socioeconomic problems, such as high unemployment and infrastructural backwardness. Environmental protection was simply not a priority.

Today, the situation is very different. EECs now sit on the highest level of the Human Development Index, enjoying low unemployment, booming industry and better life quality. There’s also higher ecological awareness and funds for sustainable initiatives. It’s why it’s a good time for ECC furniture manufacturers to put sustainable development at the forefront of their business strategies.

"Today there’s also higher ecological awareness and funds for sustainable initiatives."

The carbon footprint of furniture production

So why is it important for the furniture sector to be more environmentally-responsible?

 1.     Protect and preserve our planet

Manufacturing furniture has a large global footprint. According to My Tool Shed, the average piece of furniture generates approximately 47 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide equivalents – roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases produced burning 20 liters of petrol. Also, according to the European Environmental Bureau, 10 million tons of furniture is incinerated or put into landfills in EU countries every year, statistics that don’t bode well for our world.

 2.     Consumer trend

As industry leaders, we have a duty to our consumers, who are becoming more sensitive to eco issues, to reduce our environmental impact. According to the Sustainable Furnishing Council’s 2018 Green Home Furnishings Consumer Study:

  • 98% practiced environmentally friendly habits.
  • 60% were willing to pay 5-10% more for environmentally-safe furnishings.

Companies implementing greener strategies are not only doing their bit, but also giving their consumers reason to choose their business over less eco-friendly competitors.

"Companies implementing greener strategies are not only doing their bit, but also giving their consumers reason to choose their business over less eco-friendly competitors."

 3.     Reduce operational costs

Going green can actually save manufacturers a lot of money in various ways. That includes through:

  • Energy savings: The more environmentally-efficient the appliance – and therefore the fewer resources used – the more money saved. This can apply to water, electricity, gas and fuel usage (for example, switching to eco-friendly lighting, solar panels or electric vehicles).
  • Waste reduction: Recycling and reusing more – or using less material altogether, such as with packaging or by going paperless - can see large financial rewards.
  • Tax incentives: There are now many Government-run “green rewards”, such as rebates, tax credits and financial incentives for environment-friendly practices.
  • Employee retention: Many people enjoy working for ethically-driven companies, and in return, it can increase productivity, reduce staff turnover and save on recruitment costs. Plus, supporting other employee benefiting green practices – such as remote working - can cut down on office maintenance costs (lighting, heating and cooling the office, for example).

 4.     Improve employee performance

As well as increased satisfaction, green incentives have been shown to improve employee performance. In fact, a study by UCLA and the University of Paris-Dauphine back in 2012 found that employees at eco-friendly companies are 16% more productive than average, plus “more motivated, better trained and formed more interpersonal relationships”, which in turn increased efficiency. Other eco-friendly practices, such as supporting healthy-eating and investing in office landscaping (so, plants), has further been shown to improve the mental and physical health of employees, therefore decreasing sick days.

Becoming more sustainable

The good news is, there are many ways furniture manufacturers can be more sustainable, with many companies already on the right track.

 1.     Create circular economies

Circular economies (CE) – where waste is designed out of product manufacturing and materials kept in use by recycling, and repurposing – are becoming a big industrial trend. They’re eco-friendly, create jobs and have extra economic benefits. Ikea, who have set a climate target of becoming ‘Carbon Positive’ by 2030, are a good example. They already run many CE initiatives, including:

  • A furniture leasing service
  • A “Learning Lab” where customers can undertake upcycling and repair workshops.
  • A second hand store re-selling returned and reduced furniture.
  • Collecting and reusing packaging.

 2.     Source responsibly

More furniture companies are now seeking materials from sustainable sources, such as wood harvested from sustainable forests. They’re also moving away from synthetic fabrics, made using environment-damaging chemicals, sourcing fabrics made out of materials such as soybeans, cotton and wool instead.

 3.     Use recycled materials

Using recycled materials for products, packaging and production processes is also becoming popular among furniture manufacturers. Polish makers Flokk, for example, buy 600+ tons of recycled plastics every year for their production line. Ikea have replaced wooden pallets with recyclable paper pallets, which, due to not requiring returning, also hugely reduces their CO2 emissions.

 4.     Phase out toxic substances

Many production substances, such as surface finishings, adhesives and treatments, that typically contain toxic chemicals, are being replaced with environmentally-friendly alternatives (Henkel, for one, produces many recyclable adhesives).

 5.     Switch to renewable energy

Solar panels, wind turbines and water power are already in use at some furniture manufacturers. Companies such as Lithuania supplier Vilniaus Baldai AB, transforms production wood waste into enough renewable energy to fully power its factories.

2021: the year of green

A  new year is a great opportunity to set new goals, and after the toils of 2020, 2021 should be all about positive change. For the Eastern European furniture sector, making sustainability a priority is a great goal. It’s also one that is achievable, necessary and I believe wanted by many industry leaders who appreciate the multiple benefits.

 The fact is, our environment can’t be an after thought and everyone needs to play their part if we’re to secure a future for generations to come. So why don’t we all aim to make 2021 our greenest year yet?

"A  new year is a great opportunity to set new goals, and after the toils of 2020, 2021 should be all about positive change."

If you’d like to discuss other sustainable initiatives in the furniture industry or find out how Henkel can support your eco strategies, get in touch with me via LinkedIn.

About the author: Mindaugas Morkunas is a motivated and energetic Head of Sales. He is responsible for the furniture, construction and building adhesives section at Henkel in Eastern Europe & CIS. Having worked on “the other side of the table” in the past, he understands customers’ business needs and goals.

In 2019, Mindaugas joined Henkel as Head of Sales Russia and soon after took over the responsibility for the Easter European & CIS market. He values good quality, sustainability, cost-efficiency and a pleasant work environment. His commitment of providing the right adhesives, leads to new innovations for the industry. This means, if an adhesive is not available on the market yet, him and his team will work closely with the R&D department to develop an adhesive which is suitable to the customers’ requirements and will provide the technical support to implement it in their production processes.

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