No more landfill: How to dispose of office furniture sustainably
This story was originally published on WorkLife, Modern Retail’s sibling publication
If a company is downsizing or even getting rid of its office entirely because it has fewer people in the office at any one time, it raises an increasingly urgent question: where does all that furniture go?
Landfill apparently. In fact, 17 billion pounds of office assets end up in landfills each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Granted, there are a lot of moving (stressful) parts involved in renovating, relocating or closing. That has meant that to date, how to dispose of the furniture hasn’t exactly been front of mind for employers. That’s a mindset that needs to change, fast, experts have stressed.
Each time a company moves its office, approximately 269.53 tons of waste is created, along with 1,462 metric tons of carbon, according to research from global design and architectural services firm Gensler. But simply reusing one office desk would reduce a company’s carbon footprint by 36%. Plus, a business can save between 30% and 50% of their new-office furniture costs, if they choose to purchase recycled items, according to the same study.
To jump-start this mindset change, experts have said businesses need to plan for disposing sustainably of any unwanted furniture, as soon as they know they are downsizing, or closing, or moving – rather than leave it last minute. “There’s a lot of focus around the idea of incorporating reuse into our work stream,” said Marcus Hopper, design manager at Gensler. “It’s not just if the client asks for it we’ll do it. We know it’s the future.”
Hopper said office furniture reuse has become more scalable now that there are more companies that take donations and provide resale, and recycling options for businesses, like Green Standards, Reseat, Anew, and Rework. Gensler helps spread the word about these providers, by informing its clients about them so that they understand their options.
“We’re thinking about how discussing it with our clients can be an asset for them,” said Hopper. “We provide design services and consulting services, but is there an extension of those services around reuse? It could be early on helping develop that real estate strategy for a developer.”
Green Standards, for example, works with Google, Microsoft and Adobe, to help continue the life cycle of office furniture to avoid it being sent straight to landfill. As a result, it has a 99% landfill diversion rate on corporate real estate projects. This furniture is either resold, recycled or donated to local nonprofits in the community of that business. For example, with Adobe, Green Standards decommissioned furniture and equipment from the software giant’s U.S. and Canada offices and has given it to 167 nonprofits.
When an office liquidates, on average 80% of its furniture and equipment go to landfill and 20% is resold, according to Green Standards. But the company has also reported that there is increasing demand from employers to use its services. Today it works globally with programs in over 100 countries and over 20,000 nonprofits are registered to potentially receive unused furniture.
“You would talk to clients and they would say this sounds too good to be true,” said Trevor Langdon, co-founder and CEO of Green Standards. “It was hard for them to believe that their furniture could actually find a second home. I think what’s changed now is it’s become the expectation. A lot of decision makers in real estate are saying there’s got to be a better way than just calling a mover or liquidator and having our furniture go out the back door into a black hole or landfill.”
Decide early to donate, reuse, recycle
“It’s all about time,” said Hopper. “You can’t buy time.”
More companies are starting to grasp that. Langdon found that companies have recently started the planning six to eight months before operations need to happen, rather than waiting just a couple of weeks before, which often leads to a harder time finding a place for the furniture.
“The momentum towards trying to take a more sustainable approach to workplace decommissioning is something that’s been building even before the pandemic, but absolutely the pandemic has caused people to really stop and think what the future of their workplace is going to be,” said Langdon.
Many companies have committed to a fully remote workforce, while the bulk of them have gone all in on a hybrid workforce strategy that calls for a smaller office footprint because they don’t anticipate they will ever have their entire workforce in the office at the same time anymore. That makes now the ideal time to take an intentional approach towards sustainability objectives for office furniture, stressed Langdon.
“There’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity here to do things the right way or the wrong way,” he said. “Companies can go into it really intentionally saying ‘hey, we might be able to make a great decision that benefits the communities we do business in and is positive for the environment as well.’”
Reseat, another company dedicated to extending the life cycle of furniture, also wants businesses to be more proactive about their office waste. The company advocates that businesses start an office furniture inventory from the jump. That way there is clear information on what the item is and its dimensions, which will save time in the long run when relisting the furniture in what can be an unpredictable second-hand market, according to Brandi Susewitz, CEO and founder of Reseat.
Typically, when companies call her to say they’re ready to sell their furniture, only nine out of 10 of them have an inventory. And those that do, are useless because they’re inaccurate. “When you’re dealing with an industry that operates at an enormous scale, you can’t be in reaction mode,” said Susewitz. “It’s not a sofa you’re trying to sell from your house, it’s a building’s worth of furniture so it takes time to find the right project to plug it into.”
Enlisting furniture dealers to help
Reseat works a little differently from Green Standards in that it offers an online marketplace where companies can list their furniture ahead of a move or closure. People in search of office furniture can then buy the items online.
“If a company knows that they’re going to be relocating in 12 months, and they’re not going to be bringing their furniture because they’re already talking to a new furniture dealer, the whole point is to start marketing it right then,” said Susewitz. “That way architects can go on the site, shop by timeframe, location and also schedule an appointment to go out to the site and look at the furniture and approve its overall condition. You have time to plan it into the project. It’s the only way for it to work and save it from landfill.”
The company is also attacking things from the sellers’ side. It offers a ReseatID, which is a tool for office-furniture dealers and manufacturers to give their customers a plan for the whole lifecycle of their furniture at the point of purchase.
“If a dealer wants to become a ReceiptID holder, what that means is that they have agreed to join our mission,” said Susewitz. “You’re not just going to be selling a bunch of furniture with no plan. You’re going to sell them the furniture with a plan in place, with the ReseatID which is the second lifecycle passport.”
It’s taking care of your future self as a business. The dealer also gets a cut of the commission, so it makes money off the first sale and also once it is resold too. “There’s so much more room for improvement,” said Susewitz. “It’s not Ikea furniture, it’s commercial grade, supposed to last decades and decades, and most of it isn’t even seeing one decade.”