Germany is one of the markets where furniture is renewed most often. With new circular business models, the industry now wants to become more sustainable. The principle of “circular furniture” also calls for design.
By Karianne Fogelberg.
At the Salone del Mobile, the international industry meeting currently taking place in Milan, resource efficiency and sustainability will again be a topic. One way to decouple growth and resource consumption is offered by circular business. Circular business models aim to extend the lifespan of products and thus reduce material and energy consumption. In this way, they can contribute to achieving climate goals, but also open up new innovation and business fields in the furniture industry. In this country, too, manufacturers and suppliers have recognised the opportunity and are increasingly offering rental solutions in the office and home furniture segment. At the same time, the transformation to a circular economy requires an adapted design of product and service systems. This also opens up new fields of activity for design.
New Work – Changed Furnishing Needs
Nornorm is the newcomer in the rental furniture market. A year ago, the Scandinavian start-up began its activities in Germany. As a B2B provider, it offers corporate customers office furniture from MillerKnoll, Martela, Hay and other high-quality brands on a subscription basis. Nornorm is benefiting from a currently changing environment, which is characterised by the demand for more sustainability on the one hand and rising costs and uncertainty on the other. This particularly affects the future use of offices in the age of New Work and home office. Customers include companies that want to improve their ecological balance sheet, as well as start-ups or co-working spaces that avoid tying up capital and value flexibility.
With Ikea, Nornorm has a financially strong partner behind it. According to Julian Jacobi, who is responsible for expansion in Germany, Nornorm currently equips up to 25,000 square metres of new office space in Europe every month. And the trend is upwards. This also means that there is not enough used furniture from their own stock to meet the demand. A lot of new furniture has to be purchased: “Some customers have already complained that they got factory-new furniture from us instead of second-hand.” This predominantly linear dynamic is to be reversed in favour of multiple use as the number of clients and rental period increases.
Prerequisite: Modularity and Repairability
Daniel Ishikawa already has several years of experience with the return and reconditioning of furniture. The founder and managing director of the rental furniture service Lyght Living, based in Rodgau near Frankfurt am Main, has been renting out residential furniture in the mid-price segment since 2011. For some years now, office furniture has also increasingly been part of this. Ishikawa comes to a sobering conclusion: “In the discussion about sustainability, there is a lot of talk about individual components of furniture, such as the plastics, woods or cover fabrics used in production. That is important, but it loses sight of the fact that many pieces of furniture today are no longer suitable for long-term use.
Ishikawa works with a small group of selected manufacturers in Europe who guarantee criteria such as durability, modularity and repairability. These include Feydom, a manufacturer of modular upholstered furniture, whose covers can all be completely removed and replaced or reordered. Or the company Jutzler, which stocks spare parts for defective cupboard doors or chest of drawers. In general, selling furniture is a completely different business from renting it out, as Ishikawa points out: “For us as a service provider, making areas such as storage, transport or assembly efficient and sustainable is not a marketing issue – it’s the basis of our business.
Circularity starts in the design
The Dutch office furniture manufacturer Ahrend does both, selling and leasing. Its operational leasing programme “Furniture as a Service”, which started in 2016 as a pilot project in cooperation with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has now been in place since 2018. The company had already integrated criteria such as durability, reparability and modularity into its development and production processes years before. Its office furniture has been Cradle to Cradle certified since the 2000s. Complementing the direct sale of furniture with a company-owned rental service was a logical step: “Office furniture is used for an average of six to ten years. We want to enable longer periods of use,” explains Dionne Ewen, Sustainability Manager at Ahrend. A take-back programme complements the rental offer. Within the framework of this programme, used furniture – including furniture from other manufacturers – is reconditioned and put back into circulation.
Currently, 55,000 items of second-hand furniture are processed per year in the Circular Hub, a production facility that has been geared towards circularity since 2020. In the future, 70,000 pieces of furniture will be produced. The goal is to refurbish as much used furniture here as to produce new furniture. Turnover that has so far been generated by the sale of new furniture is to be increasingly supplemented in future by income from rental, maintenance and refurbishment. The insights gained from the circular service offers can in turn provide important impulses for the development of new products. The extent to which furniture can be recycled – whether individual components can be separated and replaced at a later date, for example – is already largely determined in the design phase.
Modular furniture – an idea from the 1960s
Modular furniture systems that can be disassembled, extended and assembled in new constellations and whose manufacturers also keep extension elements and spare parts in stock for decades are not new. Celeste Asfour, an architect responsible for interior design and consulting for Nornorm’s Berlin office, recalls that modular furniture systems already appeared in the 1960s: “The USM Haller system, now a classic, successfully integrated sustainability and flexibility into furniture design decades ago.” Companies like Vitsoe or Burkhardt Leitner also play in this royal class. The challenge today, however, is to implement modularity not only within individual product lines. But to transfer it to an entire industry – to further furniture categories, manufacturers and price segments. This is where design is increasingly in demand, because the transformation to circularity does not only lie in the design of circular products. It also lies in the design of the associated services and systems.
New Challenges, New Perspectives
Everyone agrees that Germany is still in the early stages of development. “Unlike in Switzerland, Scandinavia, England and the Netherlands, rental furniture is still a vanishingly small market segment in the German market,” says Ishikawa of Lyght Living. “We are miles away from competition.” But if furniture is used for longer than before in the context of circular systems, will furniture manufacturers and retailers be threatened with a loss of sales? Jacobi sees rental offers like the one from Nornorm more as an opportunity: “We look after our customers for years and learn first-hand what their needs are, how individual pieces of furniture prove themselves in use, and what could be improved”. With these insights, manufacturers could further develop their product segment according to needs. Ishikawa sees it similarly: “We are another possible sales market for furniture manufacturers. Even if we are associated with more effort from the manufacturers’ point of view.”
Demands for dismantlability, modularity, reparability and availability of spare parts may be inconvenient at first. However, circular suppliers also provide economic incentives for the already necessary transformation to more durability and resource efficiency. This may also hold competitive advantages for furniture manufacturers in the future. At the same time, it is becoming clear that joint solutions are needed here at industry level: “To ensure circularity, all partners along the value chain must work together more closely,” confirms Jan Kurth, Managing Director of the German Furniture Industry Associations (Verbände der deutschen Möbelindustrie VDM/VHK). He predicts that circularity will become more important in the furniture industry in the coming years. The legal course for this is just being set with the current EU legislative initiative on the circular economy: “In future, a digital product passport is to provide binding information on the interchangeability of parts, the availability of spare parts and their delivery time, right through to material information.” Such binding rules will strengthen the rights of consumers and support all stakeholders along the value chain in implementing sustainable product and service systems.
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