Basics: sustainability

"We should all be concerned about the future, because we’ll be spending the rest of our lives there."
Charles F. Kettering, American industrialist (1876 - 1958)

Although the term ‘sustainability’ is on everyone’s lips, there is no simple definition which encompasses all views. People are, however, increasingly agreeing that any continued unsustainable actions will lead to irreversible, global damage. As in many other cases, it is not until economic needs are affected (shortages, price increases, financial crises) that attitudes begin to change, even if this does not yet always result in sustainable actions. Yet it is the increased costs which, according to a survey by the Fraunhofer Institute for Occupational Ergonomics and Organisation, IAO (Green Office 2014), still prevent 63% of interviewees from investing more in sustainable buildings, for example. But acting sustainably is an intergenerational task, and must therefore begin now. For many companies, however, planning over these time frames is still not relevant or worthwhile.

Mega trends associated with sustainability – climate change, resource shortage and demographic change – nevertheless harbour risks for all companies and global society. As such, every company is partly responsible to the society of the future (corporate social responsibility). Long-term, sustainability-focused risk management is therefore not only an effective instrument; it is in all corporate interests.

REISS Sustainability Report 2020

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Competitiveness through certification

Although the Fraunhofer IAO (Green Office 2014) found that 88% of surveyed businesses still believe improving image is the number 1 goal for acting in an environmentally friendly manner, there are now also specific economic aspects contributing to a paradigm shift. The developments in this area are very varied, both nationally and internationally. While Great Britain has had a certification system for sustainable construction – BREEAM – since 1990, with the USA following suit in 1998 with LEED, German sustainability certification (DGNB) has only been in operation since 2009. The systems partly overlap, or incorporate different aspects into the assessment. But they all evaluate sustainable actions, and are increasingly being factored in as a criterion by public and private clients, investors, analysts and the media. One of the biggest projects REISS was involved in in Europe, for example, was LEED-certified, and was fitted out with thousands of compliant work stations.

For the office furniture industry, which has relatively low vertical integration, suppliers have particular influence over the “sustainability status” of finished products. Generally recognised certifications such as PEFC and FSC offer excellent selection prospects here. Both forest certifications impose strict requirements regarding sustainability, forest management eco-friendliness, work quality, and the social competence of forestry enterprises. And both meet the EU Commission criteria: Voluntariness, independent assessment, transparency, cost efficiency and open access.1

Certification of the “CO2 footprint” as a Corporate Carbon Footprint (CCF) or Product Carbon Footprint (PCF), on the other hand, is not so clear-cut. Based on eco-balance standard 14040, the CO2 emissions are recorded and evaluated here along the company’s value chain/throughout a product lifecycle. The Carbon Footprint certification does, however, provide a good basis for establishing a profile as a climate-neutral production company.1

An environmental management system certified under ISO 14001 or EMAS standards is today virtually mandatory in order to be able to participate competitively on the market.

Office furniture manufacturers particularly influence product sustainability through construction, design and workmanship. Durability, trend resistance and reusability are the aims here. Prof. Michael Braungart, founder of the EPEA (Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency) was offering perhaps slightly excessively euphoric praise for office furniture manufacturers as early as 2010: “[…] virtually the entire industry has already switched to Cradle to Cradle.”3

An almost superior certification has existed for office and interior furniture since 2015 in the form of the “level” certification initiated by the femb. Unlike seals such as the Blue Angel, which makes a selected “better than others” statement, this certification assesses sustainability in context. It involves requirements divided into the subsections: materials, energy and atmosphere, ecosystem and human health, and social responsibility. “level” incorporates the environmental and sustainability labels already existing in the individual European countries, and this applies to both pollutant analyses and EMAS or ISO 14001 tests like.


Sustainability today requires complex corporate action in terms of social responsibility. A lot, however, is also occurring on a voluntary basis due to the pressure of public opinion and changing consumer needs. But environmental involvement must also pay off economically for businesses. Test seals confirm and denote sustainable, environmentally friendly actions. In some cases already a pre-requisite, the certification is already bringing competitive advantages. The Fraunhofer IAO (Green Office 2014) also believes interest in eco-friendly interior design is continuing to grow. 47% of companies currently think about sustainability when purchasing office furniture, and another 20% plan to do this over the next two to three years. Certifications and the encouragement of company involvement in economic and environmental sustainability have created the best conditions for lasting developing on the office furniture market. These must now be utilised and enhanced.

Sustainable perspectives

Chief mining administrator Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645–1714), from Freiberg, is often referred to as the “father” of sustainability. According to von Carlowitz, only as many trees as can naturally regrow in a forest over a foreseeable period of time should ever be cleared from said forest. More than 300 years ago, he was already applying this approach to ensure a natural system was preserved and retained its essential features itself over the long term.4

The oft cited description from the United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report states that “sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”.5

According to an economically focused definition, sustainability “[...] does not mean generating profit which is then put towards environmental and social projects, but rather generating profit in a manner which is already environmentally friendly and socially responsible.”6

This approach also includes the “self-preservation” aspect of sustainability. The crucial factor here is that sustainable development not be supported through financial aid, but must rather finance itself. It is of no help to sustainable development if the investment funds have been gained in a manner contradicting the principle of sustainability.

The environmental definition (according to Herman Daly) not only involves protecting natural resources, but also incorporates the limited capacities of humans and nature. As such, the degradation rate of renewable resources cannot exceed their regeneration rate. The use of non-renewable resources must, however, be counterbalanced by suitably increasing the amount of renewable resources. And the emission level must not be higher than the assimilation capacity.7



1 Informationen für die Forstpraxis
3 Zeitschrift „Das Büro“ (Sonderausgabe „Green Office 2010“)
4 Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeit
5 Hauff, V. (1987): Unsere gemeinsame Zukunft - Der Brundtland-Bericht der Weltkommission für Umwelt und Entwicklung. Greven: Eggenkamp.
6 Pufé,I. (2014): Was ist Nachhaltigkeit? Dimensionen und Chancen. In: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (2014): Aus Politik und Zeitung - Nachhaltigkeit (APuZ). Jahrgang 64, S.16.
7 Hardtke, A./ Prehn, M. (2001): Perspektiven der Nachhaltigkeit - Vom Leitbild zur Erfolgsstrategie. Gabler: Wiesbaden.

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