How office furniture makers tackled chemical transparency

Except for perhaps formaldehyde, chemicals were not a core sustainability issue for office furniture when the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) launched the chemical component of its sustainability standard in 2008.

When we decided to position BIFMA in the chemicals of concern area, we developed a two-step process for identifying chemicals of concern and eliminating them where possible. Since then we’ve seen the chemicals of concern world open up to include a range of stakeholders and solid progress made in understanding the chemical makeup of office furniture.

Here’s a look back at where we’ve been, what we’ve learned and the challenges we see ahead of us.

Early work

We quickly learned how challenging it is to identify the chemicals in office furniture products. In 2008, several dedicated people led the effort to develop criteria for the Human and Ecosystem Health (HEH) component in the ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard. Chemistry and material health experts representing a number of interests participated.

It was a complicated endeavor: A simple side chair may appear to be made of only steel and plastic, but instead it’s a complex structure of numerous base materials, additives, colorants and the like that can require information from several tiers down in a supply chain that may comprise 50 or more manufacturers.

Once the chemical composition of all the materials in a chair is determined, the hazards associated with those chemicals must be identified. The HEH workgroup focuses on four primary categories to help manufacturers identify hazards:  

1. Persistent, bioaccumulative or toxic (PBT) chemicals
2. Reproductive toxicants
3. Carcinogens
4. Endocrine disruptors

The group compiled authoritative lists for each category and developed a screening methodology to remove chemicals and agents that didn’t apply to office furniture.  

After the chemicals in a furniture product are identified and assessed, the reduction and elimination work can begin. Product points are awarded only for elimination of each hazard category. The HEH workgroup knew that achieving these points would not be easy because of data limitations. Despite the challenges of working from limited data and lists, the effort’s overall result was a substantially better understanding of office furniture’s chemical makeup. Some achievements include the reduction or elimination of problematic plasticizers and halogenated flame retardants. This work also has provided a screening process when considering new materials.

Not so lonely

These days, the chemical of concern world doesn’t seem as lonely as when our efforts began in 2008. Furniture customers now ask for compliance to various red or restricted lists. Some customers point to regulatory lists, such as California Proposition 65 or EPA’s Managing Chemicals List, while others refer to lists developed by NGOs, such as LEED for Healthcare or International Living Futures Institute’s Living Building Challenge Red List. Companies such as Google or Perkins+Will have developed their own specific lists.

More recent developments include the Clean Production Action’s GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, which provides a comparative method for chemical hazard assessment and the USGBC’s LEED CI v4 Materials and Resources (MR) Credit 5 Building Product Disclosure and Optimization -- Material Ingredients.  

Moving forward

In light of these developments, what should be BIFMA’s next steps? That is the big question.
 
Problems still exist in gathering and maintaining chemical information for complex products. The current trend of disclosing the presence of certain chemicals in products only considers chemical presence and does not take into consideration routes of exposure.

What about the unintended use of products? While most products are used in commercial office spaces, some do go into home offices. Should we expect that someone could be exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals by ingesting parts of our furniture products? As a parent of teenagers, I do not anticipate anyone chewing on my Aeron chair, but my home may not be representative of all homes.  

To help address the dated standard and changing landscape, BIFMA hosted a Chemicals of Concern Summit last spring to bring the industry up to date on trends in identifying chemicals of concern and how to manage information. More than 100 attended the summit, including manufacturers from both inside and outside the office furniture industry, suppliers, academia, consultants, regulators and NGOs. Over the course of the summit, I had several a-ha moments.  

1. The approach taken in the HEH section of the e3 standard is not outdated, but still relevant. Yes, the chemical list and limited hazard categories may not be as inclusive as others approaches but the overall approach still works.

2. The office furniture industry is not in this struggle alone. The push towards chemical and hazard transparency is felt by many product categories. Manufacturers that make carpet, drywall, ceiling tiles, electronics or windows are all called to share this information and we share many of the same suppliers.  

3. Thought leaders in academia, governmental bodies and NGOs want to partner with us.  

BIFMA has met to discuss possible strategies and the associated issues. These concerns range from protecting suppliers IP, practical solutions for the small and medium-size furniture manufacturers and the finer details associated with chemical transparency demands, such as chemical residuals, impurities, recycled content and batch-to-batch variations.

Soon we will open up the conversation to any stakeholder that would like to participate in the chemicals of concern endeavor. The fundamental building blocks in this effort are education and supplier participation.  

Five years ago BIFMA took a big step and into a leadership position regarding sustainability and more specifically chemicals of concern. We still have a long way to go and many problems to solve but it is heartening to know that this time, in an effort to maintain a leadership position, we are not alone.

Office chairs image by Mikhail Klyoshev via Shutterstock.