Business and the Big Society

Published in the OFAS Newsletter (Office Furniture Advisory Service)

When, a few weeks ago, David Cameron gave a positive response to a question in Parliament about putting deposits on bottled drinks he sparked a tremendous debate.  Overwhelmingly, the public responded favourably and passionately.   They picked up the idea and it rapidly moved on from just recycling bottles to refilling them like we used to do. The industry response via the British Retail Consortium was by contrast sour and negative.  It in turn drew a lot of irate responses from a public that seems to be increasingly cynical about business.

It is a similar story with the Governments agenda for the Big Society – the idea that people, charities, social enterprises and commercial businesses can work together to make life better.  There is a huge debate on this in the civil society movement (charities, community organisations and parts of the public sector) but in business the response is muted and unenthusiastic. This is despite the fact that business has a huge potential role to play in this change and a tremendous amount to gain from it.

This is the classic cycle of these debates:  A new idea comes up, is ignored and then resisted by business, gets implemented anyway and business adapts and then miraculously creates a benefit from the change.

The furniture industry seems to be no different to business generally.  Apart from some honourable exceptions it is slow to engage in new environmental and social initiatives and is always playing catch up when it realises that the trend is real.

How will this tardiness be perceived by a government that has set out its stall to be the “Greenest government ever” and wants to create, through the Big Society, “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power …to the man and woman on the street”?  One answer is that it will legislate. Another is that it will find other methods of “persuasion”

There is of course a better answer.  The industry could acknowledge the direction of travel and get ahead of the debate.  So what is the direction of travel?

From where I’m looking the trend to deeper and broader environmental performance is now a permanent feature of business.  Another permanent feature is a much more engaged and connected society wanting a louder voice about how business operates.

What does deeper and broader environmental performance look like?  It means that operating a good, clean factory is no longer enough.  Every business needs to know its supply chain in detail – right back to SME component manufacturers.  Remember how Sony had 130 million PlayStations impounded in 2001?  That was all because the cables (supplied by a small company inChina) contained a small but unacceptable level of cadmium.   It’s not just the supply chain though – businesses need to be responsible for how their consumers use the product (such as how much electricity it consumes) and then how they dispose of it.  In short, the manufacturer is now deemed to be responsible for their products’ birth, life and ……death.

Couple this increased life cycle liability (at least reputationally) to the fact that enthusiastic volunteers are using the internet to track literally every step of a product’s life, and it becomes very clear that businesses cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand.  We’ve all read the stories of sweat shop labour that bedevils the fashion industry and a lot of you will have seen the debacle in April when Defra was caught on camera smashing up perfectly good office furniture.  The fact that they said it was being recycled was not good enough for the paper that exposed it, or for its readers.  Witness the bottle deposit debate. People know that reuse is the better environmental and socially beneficial solution and they want to see it happening.

Reuse is not only better for the environment but is also better for society.  Reusing furniture can really help if it is redistributed to people in need. To achieve higher levels of reuse will require a lot of people to be trained in logistics, repairs, remanufacture, marketing and sales.

Redistribution and training are where the Environmental and Big Society agendas meet.

So the trends are clear – firstly society demands higher and higher standards: in the supply chain, in the factory and at the end of first life.  Secondly, it demands much more visibility of what companies are doing and how they operate.

How should the furniture industry get ahead of these trends and create competitive advantage?  The industry is under siege from low cost imports, most of which would not meet any sensible standard for longevity or reusability and which might not stand up very well to detailed supply chain scrutiny either.

Most companies resist new standards but some see huge advantages in raising the regulatory bar.  When DuPont realised that instead of losing some $500m of turnover they could increase market share in a world where CFCs were banned, they became zealots for tougher legislation.

Reputable members of the industry are already producing good quality, well designed and long lasting products using ethically sourced wood but they are missing a golden opportunity to be in the vanguard of the changes that are coming.

They should positively engage in the Big Society – work with charities and social enterprises which could train people to give their products a second life in the community.  This second life can bring real benefits to thousands of people and would raise the profile and respect for the industry.   Just imagine.  An industry taking full responsibility for its end-of- first-life products, helping to train people to reuse them and benefiting thousands of people in the process.   Imagine then the lobbying power in government, in procurement departments and in board rooms.

That’s my vision – high quality, ethically produced furniture that is actively redistributed within the community to everyone’s benefit and for a greener world. The furniture industry can and should collectively and individually get on the front foot in these debates. In theory they are well placed to be more assertive.