Emma Olbers on Sustainability In the Furniture Design Industry — Is There Any?
“Reusing materials that have already been produced is actually one of the greatest opportunities we have to reduce carbon emissions.”
Photos of Emma Olbers’ work with the Old Library at National Museum in Stockholm taken by Andy Liffner. Portrait by Christopher Hunt.
By now, we’re all aware (on some level) that the fashion industry, and fast fashion in particular, is a serious threat to our planet. We’re talking about a whole range of factors leading to sky-high carbon emissions coming from things like water and energy use, deforestation, transports, animal husbandry, and the burning of fossil fuels. Toxic chemicals are polluting nature while also harming all living beings. Microplastics are being released into our waters. And then there’s the ever-growing mountain of textile waste that’s neither being reused or recycled. And we don’t even want to get into the leather industry (which you can read more about here) and the cruel treatment of animals, or the unethical conditions for humans workers…
Unfortunately, these problems are not at all unique to the fashion industry. Not knowing the furniture design business too well, we’re guessing (correctly, as it turns out) that it’s currently fighting a similar battle, being climate negative with high emissions and zero circularity. Wanting to dive a little bit deeper into this particular field of consumption, we contacted Emma Olbers — an award-winning Swedish product and interior designer specializing in our favorite subject.
Having expanded her design education with studies at the Sustainable Fashion Academy, Emma’s become well versed in cycle analyzes, traceability and seeing how everything is connected. Greenhouse gas emissions was even the main subject for her 2016 exhibition “Where does it come from, where does it go?”, and when being commissioned the redesign of the old library at the National Museum in Stockholm, which she did so beautifully as you can see here, Emma chose to include several climate positive materials and surface treatments.
Today, the designer calls sustainability a top priority, even arguing that if we don’t start bending down the emission curve this year, we should expect a lot more bushfires, floods and storms in the near future. “The greenhouse gases are the most important thing to get under control if we want to keep the temperature below 2 degrees, aiming for 1,5,” she says. “And for furniture, about 50% of the greenhouse gases are emitted during the material production, so I focus a lot on the selection and sourcing of materials.”
Even though wood is her favorite to work with — partly because of its unique look, but also due to its low carbon footprint and the fact that it’s easy to handle and repair — Emma thinks we’ll see a lot more fast-growing fibers, like bamboo and seagrass, as well as recycled plastic, metal and textile on the design market going forward. Science has proven that material is a key factor in the sustainable equation, and this is the word she’d like to spread to other designers and furniture companies in the industry:
“Listen to science! I’ve read the Exponential Roadmap report where scientists, NGOs and businesses have looked at the best ways of halving the carbon emissions by 2030, and it says: ‘The key solutions in the industry sector to reducing supply-side emissions revolve around a few key principles: Material recirculation, product material efficiency, production efficiency, circular business models and refrigerant management’.”
“In short, this means that material is the core business to focus on if we want to achieve circularity, that is: to use the right material, the right amount, and then design for reparation and recycling. Reusing materials that have already been produced is actually one of the greatest opportunities we have to reduce emissions, which could be cut back by as much as 60-90%. But that requires for the products to be designed for disassembly, and that the materials are recyclable.”
So, what can we as consumers do to make better choices when it comes to furniture design? According to Emma, learning more about the material should be our first focus, as it accounts for about 50% of a product’s total CO2 emissions. Next comes the question of whether the material is renewable (meaning that it can be reproduced or regrown within less than 70 years) or recycled. Other things she recommend us asking is: Will the product last for 30 years and age with grace? What type of coating does it have, and is it easy to care for? Can it be repaired or recycled? And can the materials be used again?
Not wanting to single out any one sustainable brand in particular, Emma says that the design labels to look for are the ones that use low-carbon materials (recycled/fast growing fibres or wood) and that have placed production in countries with a good energy mix (preferably renewable, like solar energy). “Another big problem in the industry”, she adds, “is that it’s a lot cheaper to produce in countries that have no carbon tax, and an energy mix with mostly coal. I think we need a global carbon tax, or otherwise a European carbon tax, plus a border carbon tax in general in order to compete on the same market.”
Such great advice and insight. And when it comes to Emma Olbers Design, we’re happy to share some news: “First up this spring I’ll be releasing a few new products that are all made with low-carbon materials. I’m also hoping to find more recycled materials, and an easier way to find out if metal is 100% recycled. Then, of course, I’ll be participating in the global climate strike on the 24th of April.”
Penciling that date into our calendars right now. Will you join?
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