A Step Closer to Furniture's Environmental Footprint

Mads Løntoft
 by Mads Løntoft
2022-01-17
A Step Closer to Furniture's Environmental Footprint

Ever wondered how your latest furniture purchase affects the environment? And if perhaps there were things you could look for to reduce the environmental footprint? Well, you’re not alone. The global market size for eco-friendly furniture in 2020 was estimated to be 36.9 billion USD and expected to increase by +60% to 59.82 billion USD in 2027.

At Interiorbeat we are drawn to better understand the environmental footprint of furniture. One big issue is that it is incredibly hard to get transparency around the environmental impact of furniture. We found that there were very few tools to provide such insights. In fact the more we looked, the more obvious it became that hardly any retailers or manufacturers provided information about the environmental aspect of their products. It was virtually impossible to find this data in a structured way, probably because the same retailers and manufacturers are also lacking the tools and data to provide such information.

As a consequence, we decided to go ahead and develop such a tool on our own. It is still in its first stages, but our hope is that in time it can be used by both furniture designers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers to gain insights that can help them make more informed decisions in regards to the environmental impact of the product they design, produce, sell and buy.

In this article, we share the backstory of how we developed the Furniture Footprint Calculator and our vision for how it can be developed further in the future. Also, we invite you to join us on the journey as we strongly believe the tool will only become truly great if we collaborate with others who have an interest in the field.

As we get an even better tool with more accurate data we hope to be able to build this into Interiorbeat’s overview of interior products to make it super easy for users to make informed decisions when buying their next product.

To get started, let’s see what the tool can actually do by going through an example of decomposing a real piece of furniture and analyzing it with the Furniture Footprint Calculator.

The FFC in Action: The Footprint of an Accent Chair

Rather than doing a lot of explanation up front, let’s just get started with applying the tool in practice. For details on how we developed the tool, where we got the data, and much more we will cover all of that after this walkthrough of how the tool can actually be used. For this, we decided to go with Nikole Accent Chair as our test piece of furniture.

We will show the exact steps of how we did the calculations using the tool, but to see what it can yield in terms of results we will jump straight to the conclusion, namely the dashboard overview as seen below:

Furniture Footprint Indicator.webp

As can be seen, insights are provided for the overall footprint along with a detailing for the components of 1) Materials & Production, 2) Packaging, and 3) Transportation.

What is clear from this calculation for example is the large percentage that materials and production constitute of the total footprint. In this case, it comprises nearly 90% of the total footprint while the packaging is less than 4% and transportation makes up the remaining 6%.

These are still somewhat abstract points. How much is a CO2-equivalent anyway? We will explain that later in this article, but not everyone might want to read a long explanation. For that reason, we have included three examples of easily relatable comparables under “The footprint corresponds to…”

So in this case the estimated footprint of the chair is equivalent to driving around 144 miles in an average car, streaming 153 hours of Netflix, or consuming just shy of 7 pieces of steak. That’s much more tangible for most people, and that’s exactly what we want it to be. Of course, you could make other comparisons, but we think this offers a good starting point.

Apart from understanding the environmental footprint of a given piece of furniture, the tool obviously opens a very interesting perspective of being able to play around with the inputs on used materials, packaging, and transportation. What would happen for instance if the textile cover was instead leather if the frames were made of metal, if the packaging was recycled and the product was domestically produced to limit transportation, and so forth. In the next section, we will show you exactly how we used the tool for the calculation shown above.

Getting Set Up and Doing the Footprint Calculation

Now that we have seen the end result we will take you behind the scenes to see how we went about doing the prep work and the actual calculations.

For this first trial, we relied on the help of experienced furniture designer Gordon Kotevski, who has a Master's degree in Furniture Design and Manufacturing and practical experience since 1993. Gordon has done an estimated decomposition of the chair in order to get the bill of material, which is needed as input in the calculation.

Below is the graphical breakdown of the chair, to get a sense of the various materials that go into such a product:

Getting Set Up and Doing the Footprint Calculation.webp

And the breakdown is then used to produce the following bill of materials (note the references 1-7), including the estimated weight in kg for each. These are needed to do the calculation of the environmental footprint:

Environmental footprint calculations.webp

With this, we are now ready to turn on the virtual engines of the Furniture Footprint Calculator.

Inputting the materials into the Footprint Calculator

The first step is to input the material weights into the tool. For now, the tool is limited to focus on materials, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation estimates (see more later on how we developed the first version of the tool). An excerpt of this is shown below:

Inputting the materials into the Footprint Calculator.webp

As can be seen the estimated footprint from the materials and production is approximately 49.5 kg CO2-equivalents.

As the next step, the packaging is estimated based on the size and volume estimates we can derive. Also, the waste treatment is estimated, here assuming that it ends up in a landfill. This can be changed to be recycled or composted as relevant as we have obtained the data for that waste treatment as well. The result as can be seen is roughly 2 kg CO2-equivalents.

Packaging by size and volume calculations.webp

As the final component, we can estimate the contribution of transportation to the total footprint. This is also still a work in progress as there are many factors that will impact the calculation, including how efficiently the products can be packaged in the containers and so forth. But to do a rough estimate we have used the gross weight of the chair and applied that to the data we have gathered on estimates for ton-mile factors (you can read more about our approach in the sections following the calculation).

Estimate contribution of transportation to the total footprint.webp

For this calculation, we have assumed that the product is produced in Guangzhou (China) and is shipped to a warehouse in Phoenix (Arizona). Also, an assumption is made that the product is then shipped 150 miles by road from stock to the end customer. These are of course assumptions that can easily be changed as needed, but serve the purpose of showcasing the tool in action.

How We Developed the First Version of the Furniture Footprint Calculator

Honestly, one learning from developing the tool is that there are some good reasons why there is a lack of transparency. There are so many factors to take into consideration both in terms of methodology and data used for the calculations.

This is a humbling fact and one that we do not take lightly. We are keenly aware that this is by no means a final solution and that the results yielded by the tool should be seen as an indication of the footprint rather than the final truth. That does not mean that it is not useful. Any meaningful tool probably takes multiple iterations to develop. As mentioned in the first part of this article we plan to keep on improving both the methodology and the data used.

In this section, we will provide insights on how we developed the tool in terms of methodology and data used. This should serve as a way of providing you with an understanding of the strengths of the tool but also its limitations. As we keep on developing the tool we will make separate updates to make it clear what has been done.

Scope and delimitation

To get started we decided to narrow the scope of the calculator and focus on the phases highlighted below in orange, while the blue ones are not currently included:

Scope and delimitation.webp

As can be seen, the focus is currently on the materials, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation while we have chosen to omit usage and disposal as these were more difficult to assess properly. Also, especially “usage” for furniture is not likely to contribute massively to the overall footprint. Disposal would certainly have an impact depending on the chosen option, but we have not been able to quantify that in a meaningful way so it is not included until we have better inputs on the methodology as well as corresponding data.

How We Measure the Footprint

In short: We measure the environmental impact in CO2-equivalents (CO2e’s).

All processes in the manufacturing, distribution, and usage of furniture and other products emit a series of greenhouse gases (often abbreviated GHGs). Examples of such GHGs are carbon dioxide, methane, sulphour hexaflouride and many more.  For more on GHG’s see here.

To harmonize and facilitate communication, it is a widely adopted practice to report the environmental impact in CO2-equivalents (CO2e’s). This means that all emissions are translated into their global warming potential as compared to carbon dioxide (CO2).

In reality, GHGs are only a part of the story when it comes to environmental impact, but it is widely used as a measure to gauge the environmental impact and for that reason, we have adopted this approach to the Furniture Footprint Calculator.

Collection and Use of Data

The data collection was a demanding task and is certainly still ongoing. We have spent +300 hours researching and validating the data used in the tool. In the following, we will provide a brief overview of the most important aspects of the data collected and used.

Materials & Manufacturing

By doing extensive research and interviewing a number of industry people (mostly within furniture design and manufacturing) we were able to build up a long list of relevant materials used in the manufacturing of furniture. There is no doubt that we are not done, but the end result is that we have a list of 224 different materials. Of these, we were able to collect and verify emission data on 180 of them, which are the ones included in the current version of the model.

The data applied for verifying the materials indicated in the spreadsheet correspond to an overall upstream footprint: raw material supply, manufacturing, and processing. The data is derived and cross-referenced from a broad range of databases and has been validated by Copenhagen-based consultancy company SUFU, specializing in GHG accounting.

For most of the materials, there are at least two data points corresponding to a regional and global geographical scope. The current version of the tool is based on an average of the found data points. In the future, we hope to be able to get more geographical precision, so that the source country can have specific data points, but that has been beyond the scope of the current version.

Transportation

We have decided to apply a Ton-Mile factor based on the weight and the distance (including packaging) of the product. According to the EPA , “Vehicle-mile factors are appropriate to use when the entire vehicle is dedicated to transporting the reporting company's product. Ton-mile factors are appropriate when the vehicle is shared with products from other companies”. In future versions, we could include the option of switching between Vehicle-Mile and Ton-Mile factors, but believe the Ton-Mile to be the most appropriate for most purposes for now.

The main assumption used in the transportation calculation is the port of entry for the products if the product is produced outside of the US. Without detailed shipping information, we assume western states receive their furniture from the biggest port on the west and the eastern states the biggest port on the east. Obviously with more specific information in regards to this then you can change the distance input, e.g. Vietnam-Ho Chi Minh City to Sacramento Port and this would update your emissions accordingly. Currently, this is done by inputting the distance by air, sea, or road in the calculation sheet as shown previously.

Ideas for Usage of the Furniture Footprint Calculator

As mentioned earlier there are many ways we envision that the tool can be used and most likely also some that we have not yet envisioned. We are eager to provide access to use the tool for those who are interested.

We hope that it will draw the interest of practitioners in the industry. Imagine how getting these first insights can highlight potential issues and areas for optimization in the design and manufacturing process.

Also, a big hope for us is that educational institutions will find the tool interesting to work with. We hope to be able to work with students and educators who can integrate the tool in course work on sustainable design. No doubt the curiosity and knowledge from both students and educators can help us ask better questions on what can be done to drive sustainability in design and manufacturing.

Finally, but certainly not least, we hope the tool will become a powerful way of creating environmental impact transparency for consumers. Although not quite at a stage where it is “plug-and-play” for a consumer to analyze a piece of furniture, our grand vision is that this will be the case in the future. As mentioned earlier we strive to provide transparency as part of the product browsing phase. Imagine if you could sort sofas from 100 retailers in order of the CO2 footprint or if we could give products an environmental score. That is still too early to do, but let there be no doubt that this is where we hope to take things in the not too distant future.

Work with us to develop the FFC even further

To repeat ourselves we would love to work further with people who share our interest in creating greater transparency in the furniture industry. If you want to work with the tool and perhaps help us make it even better please reach out to us to get access and tell us what you think and how you would perhaps like to collaborate with us. We are excited to bring this forward in collaboration!

Mads Løntoft
by Mads Løntoft
Mads has been actively involved with entrepreneurship for the past 15 years. This has been in various roles including as founder, advisor, and investor. Since 2016 Mads has been teaching entrepreneurial courses as Copenhagen Business School. To Mads, Interiorbeat is the perfect combination of striving for positive impact in society with business opportunity.
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