According to Domenico Sturabotti, director of the Symbola Foundation, Italy boasts a position of undisputed European leadership when it comes to the circular economy. With excellent consequences for the world of furniture

“Sustainability is good for business”. Architect, landscape architect, director of the Symbola Foundation and expert in industry and green economy, Domenico Sturabotti has no doubts. Also because his statement is supported by the data of the tenth GreenItaly report of the Symbola Foundation, which notes the constant growth on environmental care from the Italian economic system and how this choice translates into greater productivity and competitiveness. A phenomenon that affects the entire Italian manufacturing industry and outlines new perspectives also for the furniture sector, where the creativity element can certainly play in favor of a decisive cultural change and bring tangible benefits both in the long and medium term.

Is it possible today to give a scientific and unambiguous definition to the concept of sustainability?

It is a concept that has undergone a marked evolution in recent years. There was a first phase in which protecting the environment represented a duty, a fashion theme or a marketing strategy. Now we are in the next phase in which sustainability has taken on a broader meaning linked to social and economic issues, not just ecological. This is because we have found out that including sustainability in growth strategies allows companies to gain a competitive advantage. Business developed from a green perspective is considered by the international markets to be more reliable, because it is associated with a strategic vision capable of producing long and medium-term value. In fact, environmental sustainability today translates into greater efficiency of production cycles: if a company makes a product using less material, less energy and less water, it inevitably obtains greater efficiency.

Then there is the management of materials: it has been found that if it is done in a careful and conscious way, it allows companies and business associations to have more systemic control over their sector. According to the GreenItaly report of last year, over 432 thousand Italian companies (over 200 thousand manufacturing companies) have invested in green products and technologies in the last 5 years, with the result of obtaining better performances on foreign markets: 51 % of eco-investors reported an increase in exports in 2018, compared to 38% of the others. And it innovates more: 79% of green companies have developed innovations, against 61% of non-investors. Driven by exports and innovation, the turnover (expected increase by 26% of green companies against 18% of the others, 2019) and employment benefit (19% against 8%).

Is there a virtuous relationship between sustainability and creativity in Italy?

We can identify many experiences that move between the folds of the sectors of Italian creativity. It is very recent news, for example, that Fiat presented a system that allows battery-powered cars to exchange energy with the grid, making them a de facto resource for the national electricity system as well. Companies are working on products that evolve into new forms and that address the issue of themes: how to manage to maintain high levels of well-being in a context of limited resources. The world of creativity is strongly pushed in this direction, thanks above all to the will and skills of the companies that stimulate and drive the world of design.

And what about the furniture sector?

There is certainly a change of pace in the approach of these companies, which at the moment, however, only concerns the improvement of existing processes. It results, for example, in the replacement of traditional materials with more ecological ones. There is still no widespread design attitude that looks at the circularity of the life of products.

So there is still a lot of work to do...

Exact. I'll give you an example. The tire sector has now put in place an efficient collection system for discarded products which are then treated, transformed, to return to a new life in football fields rather than sound-absorbing panels or other. This process has completely unhinged the production logic of the companies in the sector, which instead of focusing on the finished product today are interested in the material that constitutes it and in everything that can be achieved at the end of its life cycle.

In terms of Circular Economy, what is the state of the art of the Italian industry?

Italy boasts a position of absolute leadership in Europe: despite being the second manufacturing country in the Union, it has the lowest per capita consumption of materials. It is also first among the large European economies for its ability to reintroduce treated waste into manufacturing production cycles. This primacy, which must be attributed to the historic lack of raw materials and energy resources in the area, guarantees us greater autonomy and gives us a strategic advantage. Just look at what we have managed to do in the paper sector: not only have we managed to recycle it and re-enter it in the production cycles, but also to export it as a secondary raw material. Yet we are only at the beginning of the transition from a linear to a circular model. The goal now is to move from improving existing production processes to rethinking them, foreseeing possible re-uses of materials from the very beginning.

By 2025, the Italian wood-furniture sector wants to become a world leader on sustainability issues. What are the main actions to take?

Symbola Foundation is collaborating with Federlegno Arredo precisely to develop a strategy. It is important to act at the level of governance and ensure that sustainability enters the development strategies of companies and associations. It is also necessary to create an internal culture, thus training at all levels. Finally, the idea is to create a constant updating observatory on the innovations that can have an application in the specific field of furniture. There are several issues that Federlegno will have to face in order to direct its companies towards a circular production model: that of the end of life of products (for this purpose it has set up an association whose purpose is the recovery and treatment of disused furniture then included in the production cycles) and that of the procurement of resources, which must increasingly draw on the Italian territory and in particular make use of secondary raw materials generated by Italian production chains. Each company will have to make its own commitment. However, it is important to understand that the circular economy is done all together, because concrete results are achieved only with the involvement of the entire supply chain and all the players in the system.

Fili d’erba, the Pedrali automatic warehouse designed by CZA – Cino Zucchi Architetti within the production complex in Mornico al Serio, Bergamo. Attention to the landscape and, more generally, respect for the environment is one of the prerogatives that Pedrali has made its own as a corporate value.