Despite the climate crisis being incredibly urgent, many businesses are being granted a reprieve as sustainability takes a back seat in the eyes of squeezed consumers.
But was sustainability ever really in the front seat?
The rhetoric is certainly there. Businesses of all sizes are delighted to talk about all the positive climate ‘action’ they are taking to support the environment, especially the trees they’ve planted to offset their otherwise carbon intensive activities.
That’s just greenwashing, pure and simple.
They do this while relocating or downsizing offices, resulting in millions of chairs, desks, tables and other office furniture being directed to landfill, despite often being in perfect working condition.
The waste involved in the refit, relocation, and refurbishment of corporate environments beggars’ belief. This is one of the world’s most pressing sustainability issues. This secret sustainability shame is often carried out by businesses which purport to be ethical.
The same companies who promise to plant trees are often the biggest perpetrators of industrial environmental vandalism due to the tens of millions of tonnes of furniture needlessly sent to landfill and piled high in warehouses each year.
Too many companies make token gestures to sustainability when the single biggest change they could make is changing their approach to furniture procurement.
While reforestation is commendable, no amount of tree planting is going to offset the amount of carbon we currently produce. It should be an activity reserved for the repayment of the debt already created on our Earth, not as a commercial tool to validate an empty carbon neutral or net zero target.
Significant environmental gains come only when trees mature, sometimes decades after they’re planted. There’s a carbon cost to planting trees and to offset that, each tree has to survive for years, through potential droughts, wildfires, tree diseases and deforestation.
By way of example, over a 10-year period, a newly planted tree may remove a total of 22kg of carbon from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, a single chair can contain over double that weight of embodied carbon, procured new.
This means a newly planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises.
In November 2019, the Turkish government announced a plan to plant a record breaking 11 million trees. Sources reported that 90% of the 11 million saplings planted died within just a few months.
Similar tree-planting campaigns in Mexico and Chile have been just as unsuccessful because tree-planting is not an appropriate replacement for the biodiversity of the rainforests that we are losing.
Often, companies support tree-planting through plantations which often consist of a single, fast growing species of tree which is incomparable to a natural, diverse forest.
The importance of biodiversity is often overlooked.
Carbon reduction won’t be solved by offsetting increased carbon emissions with trees. Carbon positive outcomes are only possible with circular solutions which reduce waste.
As a society, we have been caught in the cycle of manufacture, consume, dispose, then buy new, for too long. There is still a huge volume of products made with virgin materials which cannot be repaired, refurbished, or easily disassembled for recycling. And even when products are made from renewable materials at the front end, there is often no plan for them at their end of life.
Truly sustainable products are ones that can be used repeatedly or broken down into component parts for re-use.
Businesses need a plan which creates a positive exit route for the end of life of every product.
We are urging businesses to stop planting trees instead of reducing waste, and to think more about circularity and carbon-responsibility through restoration, redistribution and recycling.
Andy Russell, MD of Bureau, a market leading workspace solutions and furniture consultancy