Furnishing for Sustainability

Colleges and universities are working harder to bring environmental consciousness and solid green practices to their students through a variety of methods, including building and purchasing choices and campus-wide initiatives. Bringing the green movement on campus helps ensure that the next generation of workers leaving the higher ed atmosphere will take those same ideals into their own workplaces and beyond. One way colleges and universities can put sustainability to practice is in purchasing choices: specifying the furniture on campus to be green certified.

Sustainable furniture is the result of not only specification from customers, but also an industry-wide push for more environmentally conscious practices and products. “Some design firms on the west coast want us to meet those specifications,” explained Bill Bongaerts, president of Beaufurn Furniture, a commercial furniture supplier in Winston-Salem, NC. “But there is a very limited number of people out there doing that. Oddly enough, from the supply side, it is going to become a more common thing to do instead of top design firms requesting [sustainable furniture].” Even as colleges are looking more and more towards sustainable furniture choices, according to Bongaerts, “the industry is moving in that direction with or without the people specifying that.”

Sustainable furniture is usually certified as such, and contains recycled and environmentally friendly materials produced in a responsible manner. Bongaerts described Beaufurn’s sustainable products. “First of all,” he explained, “the hardwood used for making the frames is FSC certified. That’s one of the things you need to meet. A lot of our products are made domestically, so that’s FSC certified.” The FSC, or Forest Stewardship Council, labels timber and paper products that are responsibly produced.

Bongaerts also explained other sustainable products available for furniture manufacturers’ use. “On the construction of the frame, there is a readily available glue that doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals in it.”

Another option appearing in today’s sustainable furniture lines is the use of bio-based foams. “That’s a soy-based foam coming from a renewable resource — that’s non-toxic.” The soy-based foam replaces some of the petroleum-based ingredients in traditional furniture foam. But, Bongaerts pointed out, demand for soy has inflated the cost of the product. The foam needs to be specified by the customer because the cost is double that of regular foam.

Recycled steel is another aspect of sustainable furniture that has been around for quite a while. Green-certified fabric and fabric using recycled materials have also gained popularity. “The fabric is becoming more and more of standard,” Bongaerts added. “We have two or three fabrics that are now green certified. There are also two other fabric lines made of recycled fabric. [The fabric] is coming to use readily and at competitive prices.”

“The finishing process on the wood — the stains — we currently use are 99.9 percent pollution-free,” said Bongaerts. A water-based finish that is entirely sustainable is also available, but a customer has to also specify this finish. “For a commercial environment, getting the right color and durability [with the water-based finish] can be tricky.”

As for specific uses, Beaufurn’s recent requests for sustainable furniture included lounge furniture and wood and metal chairs. Bongaerts observed that he didn’t see specifications from universities asking for furniture for specific uses, such as residence halls. Instead, the six universities his company supplied in August, just before school started, were for a variety of mixed-use furnishings.

Changes in the furniture industry continue, and so will the pervasiveness of sustainable practices on college campuses, from the ground up. While sustainability may still be a student movement in some colleges, it will reach the administration. “And we will be ready because the whole industry is moving in that direction. The big issue in the past has been the price points. If you were looking for an environmentally friendly glue, eight or nine years ago, you would have been charged a big premium. Today there is no price difference.” Bongaerts continued, “We can meet the sustainable products and produce the certificates, but the only hurdle we have today is to be certified as a green company.” Many companies cannot afford to pay what independent certifiers are asking, meaning they can produce and certify sustainable products, but the company itself cannot be labeled as green. “But,” Bongaerts pointed out, “as the industry moves towards [more sustainable products and practices], the price [of company certification] will come down. This is a result from a lot of people like us.”

For any application, there is an advantage to using sustainable furniture. “There is a growing consciousness or awareness that the foam we have been using has not been planet-friendly. More than anything else, there is a huge motivation for suppliers of foam and fabric to become green certified and sustainable because of public awareness of the carbon footprint of such products and the diseases caused by certain materials,” Bongaerts explained. “People are keenly aware of pollution and emissions, but the push is coming from the industry to the consumer and back to [the companies], without it yet becoming an obligation from the purchaser.”

While the advantages to sustainable production and finished products are obvious, that doesn’t mean demand will always decrease the price. Recycled materials and furniture made of recycled materials may never be cheaper than their non-recycled counterparts. “The cost of steel has gone up by 60 percent in the last year and a half. Demand will always keep that price high,” Bongaerts said. The same applies to soy. “Hopefully the industry will find different materials to make [the foam] with to bring the price down. It shouldn’t be double the price — it isn’t a fair trade-off. Soy is definitely a renewable material, but to make it you are burning a lot of other energy. But, worldwide, people are looking for the solutions.”

Beaufurn, like other companies, is continuing to bring sustainable practices to their furniture production, from choices offered by their suppliers to recycling practices in their warehouses. “A thrust is behind us, making the economics of doing this affordable,” Bongaerts asserted. “You do need to care, and you do need to move in this direction whether your customers are forcing you into it or not. The whole world is moving into this direction.”

With the continuation of the movement of furniture suppliers and producers to increasing sustainable options, the demand for sustainable furniture on college campuses will also increase. Sustainable purchasing choices will allow colleges to put environmental awareness into practice, showing students how to walk the sustainable walk.