456 Megajoules for a chair
von Nancy Jehmlich | Aug 25, 2008

Given ever scarcer resources and rising energy prices, hardly any company will in the long run be able to avoid committing to an efficient energy balance. Especially as questions on sustainable products and eco-friendly production have long since ceased to relate solely to an ecological or social conscience, but are an image issue and an effective means of advertising. For how many products now save the rain forest, build villages for children, or secure a liter of clean drinking water for all those who do not have access to it. However, the standards are rising: In future, an increasing number of products will need to be made in an eco-friendly manner, from eco-friendly materials and their eco-friendly disposal be possible.

For example, Italian company Arper, which specializes in producing high-grade chairs and tables, has committed to sustainability and, driven by its ecological thrust developed a responsible product program. “The whole thing is part of our DNA,” explains Claudio Feltrin, Arper’s CEO, when asked why the company has taken such a path. “It is a very important decision, and relates not only to internal personnel, but also to the entire network of our suppliers.”

The data on this, the announcement on Arper’s commitment to the environment, is hidden away in company press releases in small print like the general terms and conditions. The program consists of three main pillars: eco-management according to ISO 140001, an environmental product declaration EPD, and the life-cycle analysis of the respective product. The eco-management system is the sole responsibility of the manufacturer, but has to be evaluated by an expert, with the audit at Arper undertaken in 2006.

In March 2008 Arper had two of its most important products assessed in terms of their eco-impact: The Catifa 53 and 46 chairs (central foot – four legs; mono-color – bi-colored). During the LCA life cycle assessment, each individual phase from the production of the raw materials via manufacturing and distribution through to use and disposal is examined. “For us, the LCA analysis is a fundamental imperative. We share the opinion of the EU Commission, which says that 80% of a product’s eco-impact is decided during the design phase,” reports Feltrin. The study led to Arper being awarded the Environmental Product Declaration. The EPD is based in ISO 14025: “Type III environmental declarations”. It is based on an eco-balance and presents the eco-impact without evaluating it. It certainly makes product features comparable. For example, it shows that the four-leg Catifa 46 chair is more eco-friendly than the four-leg Catifa 53. Because although both can be 99 percent recycled, the Catifa 46 requires only 456 Megajoules of energy, while the Catifa 53 needs 536 Megajoules – something that perhaps explains the product names. In other words, the Catifa 46 uses as much energy as transporting ten tons of materials 100km by rail, but on average lasts for 15 years.

There is a growing awareness of the eco.-impact of products. “Design must not be self-satisfied. It must be beautiful, but it must also be intelligent,”, as Claudio Feltrin, among others, suggests. And even the food industry has now discerned that “there is demand for products that do not impair the health of those who use them.”

It would without doubt be useful to summarize such eco-relevant statements in a single classification system, in order to ensure the comparability of products in this regard. For who knows, perhaps Catifa products are those chairs world-wide that consume the most energy – or the least? Standardized figures are absolutely necessary here, reliably informing consumers without the latter having to do a lot of research. To date, one could be forgiven thinking that a jungle of symbols and signs, guidelines and laws await us, and yet all the seals and certificates do not by any account ensure mutual comparability. Is for example any reduction in material inputs automatically ecologically meaningful and to be rewarded by certification? Let’s hope for the best.

Catifa 53 and 46 chairs (central foot – four legs; mono-color – bi-colored)