One-on-One archives.

May 2005

Sustainability: Not Just Another Marketing Initiative

The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Assn. (BIFMA) International's voluntary Sustainability Guidelines, released in March, are the industry's first attempt to define sustainability. Mark LaCroix, the chairman of BIFMA's sustainability subcommittee and the divisional vice president of Interface Fabrics, comments on the guidelines' creation and future.

By Katie Coleman
A Loaded Word

At its core, "sustainability" simply means the ability to sustain. Everyone seeks that - trying to stretch every dollar a little further, every weekend a little longer and, in today's world, every gallon of gas a little farther down the road.

To many, sustainability means trying to sustain a more healthy environment into future generations. But in that definition, the word "environment" generates two seemingly separate interpretations: the literal environment in which we breath air, grow food and access water, and the business environment in which we fret over the financial well-being of our clients, employees and pocketbooks.

But in the last decade or so, a

marriage of these two understandings has spawned a new phrase: "sustainable development." Though meant as a clarification, this relatively new idiom has created its own confusion - So what does "sustainable development" really mean?

Officially, sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." At least that's how the United Nations' Bruntland Commission defined it around its inception in 1987.

Basically, the international commission's conclusion was that while economic progress should not be made at the expense of the natural environment, it ought to also follow that environmental health issues should not hault economic growth.

A three-pronged approach in which society, environment and economy are tackled simultaneously was then adopted and has grown in popularity and acceptance since the late 1980s. In its Sustainabily Guidelines, BIFMA adopts a similar interpretation (see BIFMA's Glossary sidebar).

"Sustainability" is a loaded word.

But over the last four years, the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers' Assn. (BIFMA) International has attempted to define it anyway.

In the office furniture industry's first official stab at outlining sustainability or sustainable development, BIFMA - which represents 92 regular members and 55 supplier members - released "Sustainability Guidelines for Office Furniture Manufacturers and Suppliers."

In a March 10 news release about the document, BIFMA officials said the voluntary guidelines are meant as a "roadmap for any office furniture [company] desiring to become ... more sustainable" and "as an add-on to a company's existing environmental management system."

In the guide, "sustainable practices" are basically defined as industry efforts to achieve development goals in the "triple bottom line" of economic vitality, ecological integrity and social equity (see BIFMA's Glossary sidebar for more).

In addition to its glossary, the guide features a sample "top executive commitment form,"

guiding elements and a sample reporting framework. The 14-page document may be downloaded from BIFMA's Web site, www.bifma.org.

Mark LaCroix, the chairman of BIFMA's sustainability subcommittee that worked to create the document, comments on the guidelines and the industry's sustainability issues.

LaCroix, also the divisional vice president of Interface Fabrics in Grand Rapids, MI, joined eight other BIFMA members from throughout the furniture industry to develop the voluntary guidelines.

The Basics

Wood & Wood Products: Why now? What was the impetus for creating the sustainability guidelines?



Mark LaCroix: The sustainability movement is growing exponentially in the United States. The U. S. Green Building Council estimates that over 7 percent of commercial construction in the U.S. is being designed/built to a LEED standard, which is just five years old. Newer versions of LEED will impact furniture manufacturers even more. The more we explored specific projects within the subcommittee, the more we understood that our diverse membership needed a baseline, a common understanding of what activities in their own companies would move them toward sustainability. To my knowledge, the Sustainability Guidelines are the first attempt by an entire industry to define sustainability.



W&WP: How will these guidelines impact your company, specifically?

LaCroix: All companies have much to learn about sustainability. It is my belief that we still don't know much more than what we originally knew about this complex issue. I'm fortunate to work for a company in which the very first person to understand and commit to sustainability was our founder, Ray Anderson. The guidelines will serve to strengthen our commitment to build a company that does well (in a pure business sense) by doing good. The guidelines will also help us identify like-minded customer and supplier partners that are interested in pursuing the same goals.



W&WP: How will this impact suppliers of particleboard, hardwood lumber, finishing materials, etc.?



LaCroix: Keep in mind that this is a voluntary guideline, so any impact on suppliers will be because each supplier individually made a business decision to adopt the guidelines and move their business toward a more sustainable model. With the growth in customer demand for increasingly sustainable products, I believe more suppliers will determine that it is indeed good business to pursue sustainability. The guidelines are simply one tool that they might use.



W&WP: Was there supplier representation on the committee?



LaCroix: Yes, my company is a supplier. It was about 50/50 supplier to manufacturer.



W&WP: Do you think the somewhat-heavy presence of Michigan-based companies will affect how other companies receive the guidelines?



LaCroix: No. I believe we did have fairly broad-based representation from the furniture industry. Many committee members outside of Michigan participated via Web conference. The guidelines are not region specific, so they do not "favor" one region over another. In fact, with slight modifications, these guidelines could be adopted by other industry groups. We'd like to see that.



W&WP: How easily do you think they will be adopted by your members?



LaCroix: Adoption of the guidelines will be easy; fully implementing the guidelines will be quite challenging in some areas. Sustainability is hard work and will require much innovation, but every company has "low hanging fruit." How many manufacturers have ever thought of their lean initiatives as green initiatives? Lean is green; reduce waste and, in most cases, you reduce your environmental impact. The important thing is to get started; we hope the guidelines will encourage companies to do just that.

About the Guidelines

W&WP: The guidelines emphasize a three-pronged definition of the sustainability you seek - economic, environmental and social. Why is that? Where did that idea come from? Do you think most companies are or will be able to treat those three aspects equally?



LaCroix: A short answer to this question will be very difficult, but I'll take a shot. The idea of the triple bottom line [social, economic and social sustainability] was first introduced by John Elkington in "Cannibals with Forks." This approach recognizes that all human activity, in business or our personal lives, functions within these three systems. This "whole-systems thinking" approach in business means that we recognize that every single business decision we make impacts all three of these systems. Increasingly, sustainable businesses weigh the benefits of their business decisions against the potential costs to each of these systems.



W&WP: In the document's forward, you mention that the guidelines are consistent with ISO 14001. Why did you choose that standard? Were there others you considered and/or consulted?


BIFMA's Glossary

So what does BIFMA's Sustainability Guidelines define and how? Here are some key exerpts of its "definitions" section, listed on page 5 of the

document:



Sustainable Practices - This refers to efforts by industry to achieve sustainable development goals that call for simultaneous performance improvements in economic vitality; ecological integrity; and social equity.



Ecological Integrity - The healthy functioning of biological organisms within the ecosystem they inhabit.



Social Equity - Involves the identification of issues, the development of standards and the implementation of programs that address corporate responsibility for the ethical treatment of employees, communities and other stakeholders.



Triple Bottom Line - Sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic vitality; ecological integrity; and social equity. Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line, but against the triple bottom line.

LaCroix: We are not recommending or favoring one environmental management system over another. ISO 14001 is probably the best-known environmental management system, so we used it as an example. What is important is that a company has an environmental management system, even if it's home grown. During the development of the guidelines, we often referred to them as a "snap on" to an environmental management system incorporating triple bottom line thinking into a traditional EMS system. An EMS is important because it helps set up a system of measurement.



W&WP: The guidelines include three main elements - a sample commitment form, the guiding elements and a sample reporting framework. Why did your committee choose these elements, the first and last of which are so specific while the middle is so general and may be interpreted differently by each interested company?

LaCroix: The first and last elements are more specific because the first documents the commitment and the last documents performance against that commitment. The middle represents the actual guideline. As a trade association, we wanted to avoid being prescriptive while at the same time giving our membership a compass of sorts, showing them which way is north with regard to sustainability.



W&WP: Why is it so important that top executives say they are "personally committed"?



LaCroix: Sustainability is not a program, department or marketing initiative; it is a lens through which companies view their business. Sustainability will not work unless there is genuine commitment from the top.



W&WP: The guiding elements give broad ideas of where companies can start. How challenging do you think it will be for companies to implement those suggestions on a daily basis?



LaCroix: Some will be more difficult than others; I do think that many companies will be surprised by how many of the practices in the guiding elements they have already implemented simply because they represent good business practices.

W&WP: Do you think there is anything in these guidelines that will surprise your members?



LaCroix: Yes, I think many members will wonder why the top executive commitment is necessary. Again, sustainability is not a program, but a way of running an entire business.



W&WP: How easy do you think these guidelines are to implement? Who will have the hardest/easiest time doing so?



LaCroix: Sustainability is a journey, so we are likely many years away from a sustainable/restorative world. From a manufacturing perspective, vertically integrated companies may have an easier time implementing the guidelines because they control more processes from start to finish.



W&WP: There seems to be a heavy emphasis on encouraging companies to make themselves accountable. Do you think accountability can/should be self-enforced? Is there any other way?



LaCroix: Again, as a trade association, we were trying to avoid being prescriptive about reporting and accountability. Ultimately, informed customers who value increasingly sustainable products will reward suppliers who have chosen sustainability over those that haven't. The market will drive companies to sustainability. Recently, I presented to a class of 18 senior-year interior design students, and 15 of them were working on green buildings for their senior projects. These customers of the future are being taught how to select products based on their sustainable attributes.



W&WP: Overall, what is the future of sustainability guidelines in the industry? Do you think there will ever be a universal

standard?



LaCroix: I think the future is very bright for the guidelines and sustainability in general. I think you'd be hard pressed to find an executive in our industry that doesn't think that sustainability is becoming increasingly important. The key message to those who haven't taken the plunge is that sustainability is a way to drive costs out of a business, not add cost. There already is a universal standard, and it's right outside our window. Nature is the ultimate low-cost producer functioning in closed loop systems using current solar income and producing zero waste. The more we run our businesses the way nature runs hers, the more successful we'll be.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.