It’s the big challenge of our time. For furniture makers, sustainability doesn’t just mean using recycled materials. It means an overall reinvention of production processes. A structural and strategic choice. The winners will be companies capable of tackling technological competition for the good of the planet

Business strategies for sustainability become an imperative, and not just for the sake of the environment. The furniture sector reports exports of over 16 billion euros: compliance with the stipulations of international certifications becomes impossible to postpone. And if one of the fastest growing markets is that of contract furnishings, having products with eco-certifications – FSC, EPD or GreenGuard, for example – brings competitive advantage. For manufacturers, this means investment at the level of processes: the entire production machine has to reduce the overall carbon footprint, limiting wasting of materials and energy consumption through more efficient instrumentation, creating or recovering clean energy.

At the product level it means analyzing the life cycle (LCA - Life Cycle Assessment), from procurement of raw materials to disposal after years of use. In these dynamics, the creation and management of supply chains of ‘secondary’ – namely post-consumer – raw materials have an increasing impact. The Greenitaly Report 2019 of Fondazione Symbola shows high indicators of eco-efficiency in the handling of waste, but low efficiency in its production (too much is produced), in spite of a reduction of 24.6% from 2008 to 2016. This aspect will be increasingly strategic in the years to come. In general, the report points to a structural change on the part of furniture makers, who are abandoning cost limitations to experiment with ‘technological’ competition and repositioning in new market spaces marked by high-end targets of quality and lower environmental impact.

Manufacturing firms (5-499 employees) that have invested in green products and technologies in the period 2016-2018 look forward to average sales growth of 26%, +19% in terms of employment and +33% in exports. Back when sustainability was not such a crucial issue, some producers obtained ISO 14001 certification for environmental management systems, bearing witness to practices that protect the planet by preventing pollution and reducing the amounts of waste of materials and energy.

A 360° sustainability profile was achieved 15 years ago by Scavolini, whose activities are based on renewable or self-produced energy sources, with a vast range of recycled materials, and high rates of recovery and separation of waste caused by industrial processes (over 90% sent to recycling). Magis also has ISO 14001:2004 certification, indicating high standards not just of the company but also of its suppliers and procurement of materials.

Recently Pedrali achieved ISO 14001:2015 certification for the environmental management system across the entire production chain. “Our company was founded in 1963,” says Giuseppe Pedrali, CEO of the Bergamo-based firm. “We do everything in-house – wood, metals – and we mold plastic materials; these are processes that a maker of editions cannot control, having to rely on many small and medium companies for outsourcing. We constantly invest in order to improve production efficiency with new machinery, including technical solutions to reduce consumption: from faster automatic doors to prevent heat loss, to the recovery of 95% of the heat from pressing machines to heat the facilities.

Our sustainability dates back to the 1980s, when we began to use water-base paint on glass we were at a crossroads in the transformation of the production process. (Davide Malberti, CEO of Rimadesio)"

Investiamo costantemente al fine di aumentare l’efficienza produttiva con nuovi macchinari e in soluzioni tecniche per ridurre i consumi: dalle porte automatiche veloci per non disperdere il caldo al recupero del 95% del calore delle presse di stampaggio per riscaldare i capannoni, dalla coibentazione dei tetti al sistema di paratie per l’aerazione dei locali in base alla stagione, al passaggio al led. Con il fotovoltaico, nello stabilimento di Manzano autoproduciamo il 50% dell’energia. Quanto ai materiali, consideriamo il carbon footprint della filiera tenendo conto delle distanze: per esempio la ghisa, per l’80-90% materiale riciclato, arriva da fonderie situate nel raggio di 25 chilometri dall’azienda. Mentre il legno è tutto certificato FSC e utilizziamo vernici all’acqua di derivazione vegetale che per il 40% sono costituite da materie prime di scarto.

Impieghiamo plastiche di prima qualità e riciclabili che, come produzione, impattano meno di altri materiali: il calore di fusione del polipropilene è 220°C contro gli oltre 1000 dell’acciaio, in un processo che non rilascia fumi o sostanze inquinanti nell’ambiente. Se mettiamo al primo posto la durata e la disassemblabilità dei prodotti, creiamo oggetti che possono essere sostituiti per parti nel tempo e che abbiano una vita anche nel mercato dell’usato, alimentando canali alternativi”.

For Rimadesio innovation of production processes is an asset in the growth strategy. The company, part of the national program Impresa 4.0, invested about 3 million euros in 2019 in this direction. “Our sustainability dates back to the 1980s,” says Davide Malberti, CEO of Rimadesio. “When we began to use water-base paint on glass we were at a crossroads in the transformation of the production process: we opted to eliminate the damaging components, though there were obstacles, even on the part of dealers and suppliers.

But while 15 years ago people were not interested in recycled and recyclable products, or in coatings without harmful substances, now that sustainability has become a must our products are ready, because we were already competitive in these areas.” At the center of the production process there is a system completely powered by photovoltaic systems, which with 5250 panels installed on the roof of the plant in Giussano guarantees the production of 1300 kWh. “Shifting to green operations is not economical: since 2006 Rimadesio has spent over 9 million euros for sustainability.

But the CO2 emissions that have been prevented each year amount to about 800 tons, 9.7 of which are due to the polystyrene we have eliminated from the production cycle since 2018, replacing it with 100% recycled paper. Starting in September, new machinery will change the process of packaging of the more voluminous products, reducing waste in cardboard packing crates and shipping it in compact bundles to nearby recycling facilities. We will also be working on the gradual replacement of plastics: for example, in the inner components of the composite doors there will be recycled paper-based materials instead of expanded polyurethane.”

For us, how one produces, the impact on the community and the territory, and respect for regulations have always been very important. We export 95% of our products, so we have to come to terms with the standards in different countries, gauging our operations to comply with the strictest parameters. (Claudio Feltrin, president of Arper)"

Calligaris stands out for its choice of materials, and in the Vela seating family the company offers, besides the model with a shell in 40% recycled polypropylene, also a Green bioplastic version, made with 80% renewable raw materials. In the padded variant the seats are covered with fabric composed of 75% recycled PET. The wood is all FSC certified. “The bioplastic is a PLA, polylactic acid, derived from processing of sugar cane and corn,” says Michele De Bonis, R&D director of Calligaris.

“Since the material was not created for this use, research was required to develop a moldable product using our production system. One of the limits of the bioplastics is also their cost, because the supply side of the material cannot meet demand which is prevalently in the packaging and disposable food container sectors. Sustainability is a corporate strategy, to be conducted like research and development: from new recycled materials, also applicable for structural elements to replace or reduce traditional ones, to production technologies not generally utilized for the making of furniture. There is also the matter of ISO 14001 certification, which we will obtain by the end of the year.”

We do everything in-house – wood, metals – and we mold plastic materials; these are processes that a maker of editions cannot control, having to rely on many small and medium companies for outsourcing. (Giuseppe Pedrali, CEO Pedrali)"

Arper has been working on environmental sustainability since 2005, with protocols ranging from ISO 14001 certification for the environmental management system, to FSC, LEED, EPD and GreenGuard product certifications. “For us, how one produces, the impact on the community and the territory, and respect for regulations have always been very important,” says Claudio Feltrin, president of Arper. “We export 95% of our products, so we have to come to terms with the standards in different countries, gauging our operations to comply with the strictest parameters. For us, everything starts with LCA (since 2007) and design, because those factors generate production, and production determines sustainability.

We are working with designers on easy disassembly of products to implement virtuous processes, with the idea of effectively passing from the concept of reuse to that of recycling. But there is a more important passage to do with the consumer: to make sustainability perceptible as a resource, not a limitation. So just as happens in the appliance sector, since 2008 we have placed a label on our products that indicates four values: percentage of recycled and recyclable material, consumption of CO2 and of kJ. These are parameters that have to be balanced, but besides the ethical issues, they can offer a perceptible advantage.”