‘Our impact on the environment’ – it’s a phrase we hear a lot, and a topic many of us often think about, both from a personal and a business point of few. However, there are so many factors at play that understanding your own impact, let alone our society's impact as a whole, can too often feel intangible, making it a challenge to find ways to reduce it.
For furniture designers (or any type of product designer really), this challenge is what Swedish designer Emma Olbers attempted to address with her exhibition during Stockholm Furniture Fair. Now or Never – 1kg of CO2 showcased the climate impact of a range of materials commonly used in architecture and furniture design projects. The weight or volume of the material on display was that which could be produced with a 1kg CO2e impact. The exhibit laid bare the contrasting environmental impact of traditional and alternative materials, which have similar technical properties but vastly different environmental impacts. For example, one kilogram of CO2e will produce 90cm2 of leather, as opposed to 6.5m2 of woven Rattan. One kilogram of Co2e emissions also produce 4.4 kilograms of concrete or 9.1 kilograms of pine wood.
“I really wanted to see for myself how much one kilo CO2e emissions is in my line of business.” said Emma, speaking at a panel discussion exploring the power of choosing the right materials, continuing; “I have seen all the numbers but you don't really understand, you need the visualisation. I think you can really feel the difference when you see it like this. This type of counting is just the first step though. When you have done the counting, then you know right away that (to reduce your environmental impact) its materials. 50% to 80% of the CO2e emissions of furniture manufacturing is the materials you use. With my exhibition I want to kick start people’s knowledge on the environmental impact of materials, to inspire better choices.”
The exhibition was created in collaboration with SALLY, a future manifestation lab at the design agency EY Doberman. The carbon emissions of each of the materials were calculated using Doconomy’s 2030 calculator, which indicates a carbon footprint based on emissions produced during extraction, manufacturing, and transport up to point of sale (of the material).
Head of Sustainability at SALLY Krisoffer Lundholm, who also spoke on the panel, highlighted the importance of creating an easily understood reference point for everyone to start to understand their impact.
“At our company, we work a lot with data, that's what we see as a starting point. You need to measure where you're at now to understand the context - What needs to be done, and what the consequences are if you don’t. For most people, once they see those numbers, it's a scary insight. But it motivates people to act.”
Both the exhibit and the Doconomy 2030 calculator are tools that are designed to empower designers in being part of the solution when it comes to achieving climate goals. Creating a standardised set of information on the materials that make up the building blocks of the products they create, in order to make more sustainable items.
It’s also important for the consumer to be able to make educated choices in choosing the right products, including furniture. Ecolabels are touted as the way for purchasers to know if products are sustainable, but the sheer volume of different ecolabels, and the inability to easily compare them presents a challenge.
The best way to do this, especially when it comes to CO2 emissions is through EPDs. An EPD or Environmental Product Declaration is an independently verified document of a product’s environmental performance throughout its lifecycle – from raw material extraction to end of life. Much like a food label, it contains a list of every material used within the product, but instead of nutritional data, it exposes environmental impact, including CO2e emissions, broken down by component as well as overall.
Presented in a standardised structure, these documents allow easy comparisons between products to give consumers exact CO2e data on the products they can choose.
Christian Lodgaard was also a guest on the panel. As the Senior Vice President of Design at Flokk, Christian spoke of the influence Flokk has had on the adoption of EPDs within the industry; “In 2004 we published the first EPD in the furniture category. After this, we proceeded to create a calculator that makes the process more efficient and much quicker. We shared this calculator with the Norwegian Federation of Industries, and now, it is also being exported to Sweden. The Swedish TMF is buying into it at the fraction of the development cost, enabling Swedish manufacturers to do the same assessment.
“We do this because we want to share the knowledge and help others do better. My dream is that there will not just be this competition on how much products cost, but also on sustainability, which in most cases is based on what materials are used. Through EPDs we can make this competition as easy to understand as a price tag.”
Now or never – The power of choosing the right materials was a panel talk held on 9th February 2023 at Stockholm Furniture Fair. Guests included Christian Lodgaard Senior Vice President Flokk Design, Shawn McKell Chief Strategy Officer Doconomy, Kristoffer Lundholm Head of Sustainability Sally by EY Doberman, Emma Olbers, Designer, with Moderator Isabelle McAllister.
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