It’s not uncommon to have the opinion that sustainability is best left the people that wear headbands and peace signs, or for the industries that are “actually affected” by climate change such as the more energy and water intensives sectors like Food & Beverage. Surely a labour-intensive industry like furniture manufacturing who rely on minimal municipal water and energy supply compared to other industries has more important areas to focus?

In a recent research effort where we identified the critical growth drivers to unlock growth in the local furniture market, we discovered that perhaps we have not been giving sustainability as much credit as it deserves.

Social and environmental sustainability is an emerging growth driver across the leading global furniture retailers.

In today’s world we are seeing that consumers who have shifted their lifestyles to lessen environmental impact have gone out of their way to recycle and purchase products with eco-friendly packaging. The Paris Agreement and EU Green deal have also had a radical impact on the sustainability compliance requirements of global supply chains.

IKEA has set ambitious sustainability targets and centered its whole strategic direction around the environmental sustainability of its raw materials and investments in wood and wood processing take center stage in this. Nitori’s sustainability strategy appears to be linked to customer requirements of living comfortably against the implications of climate change by developing new and innovative products which are sweat resistant or heat retaining. TJX has made significant commitments to reducing their store and warehousing emissions.

Lead retailer sustainability decisions have implications on their value chains

And yes, this includes the decisions made by their manufacturing suppliers. Manufacturers who are able to unlock retail market opportunities are successfully leveraging sustainability in multiple ways that do not necessarily include direct environmental impact through manufacturing operations.

Ways to leverage sustainability to unlock markets:

  1. Sustainable raw material sourcing

Designing and manufacturing furniture made from sustainable raw materials such as FSC accredited wood, natural fibers like hyacinth, cork, banana, and rattan. Recycled and renewable plastics have also become a popular furniture material.

  1. Raw material innovations

The development of composites manufactured from two or more materials which have different characteristics. They are strong, low maintenance, light and can be produced at a low cost e.g. a wood-plastic composite. IKEA uses these composites to utilize waste from other products to create new products.

  1. R&D Investment in technology sectors and research institutions

Utilizing R&D to innovate and develop new products which support the end-user in a changing climate. For example, Nitori developed an “N-cool” product which is a cooler than normal product, and an “N-warm” product which has higher heat retention and moisture control. Their “Eco-nature” curtaining products improve heat retention and heat loss by 20% and reduce UV exposure by 80%. Nitori sold 14 million of these units over an 18-month period.

  1. Recovering products for an extended lifespan

In 2019, IKEA successfully gave 47 million recovered products a second life, 38 million products were resold through the As-Is area and more than 9 million products were repacked and sold.

  1. Re-looking at logistics

Investment in efficiency technologies and consideration of more sustainable fuels, transport mechanisms, and product packaging for logistics from suppliers and to customers.

  1. Carbon offsetting

Investment in carbon offsetting projects such as windfarms, renewable energy etc.

Sustainability strikes closer to home

Not convinced? SA retailers are investing more and more heavily in the sustainability of their operations and supply chains. The likes of @home and Mr Price Home are calling for sustainable innovations in the products they are sourcing and the packaging they are using.

It has taken a while, but sustainability is an area that can no longer be ignored if local furniture manufacturers are hoping to grow and remain relevant in the future. Sustainability is no longer just the right thing to do, it’s what we have to do.