Good product design as starting point for sustainability and a circular economy
150 years of VARIO BüroEinrichtungen. Based in the Taunus mountains in Germany, the company stands for high-quality desk systems, meeting and conference tables, cabinets, containers, caddies and partition screen systems, now with a workforce around 100 people strong. Combining clarity and minimalism with high quality and functionality, VARIO products stand out with a high degree of customisation and an environmentally compatible manufacturing process. We spoke to Managing Director Anton Flechtner about his views on the future of the office, remote working and the huge opportunities for medium-sized business to get ahead when it comes to sustainability and climate neutrality.
Mr Flechtner, no furniture sector was more heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic than the office furniture sector. Working from home and hybrid working have become a permanent fixture of everyday life. How has this affected your projects?
The office furniture sector has been transitioning for a few years already, moving towards more digitalisation, ergonomics and reduced areas for storage space. Covid-19, however, has sparked a rethink of the traditional office space. Desk solutions are smaller, simpler. Interests are shifting towards hybrid meeting spaces, office kitchens, mobile partition solutions with integrated screens, designated break spaces or lounge systems. Storage systems also still hold their place in interior design, as room dividers or acoustic elements, for example.
People are looking for solutions for their homes that can be tidied away and which allow for a separation between living and working. What concepts do you offer for this?
When it comes to working from home, it's all about customisation. People without their own home office are looking for 'homely' solutions, such as desk modules and integrated storage spaces with hatches, roller shutters and other elements that allow you to put your work life out of sight. We have our own solutions in our portfolio here. However, traditional B2C business is still not the focus of the office furniture industry.
The shift within the office is just one of the big challenges. The path to climate neutrality and sustainability has gained lots of momentum. How is your company positioning itself for this change?
Our products are geared towards durability in design and quality right from the start. We manufacture products with an intended lifespan of at least 20 years. We also remain mindful of restorability and repairability. This is a very important step in achieving sustainability for us.
Our company has deeply embedded the idea of sustainability in our statutes. We publish a sustainability report every year, we are ISO 14001 certified, we have our own energy management system, we produce exclusively with green energy, we do not use any PVC materials and we are currently working towards ESG sustainability certification. We want to be the lighthouse within the industry.
You talked about PVC-free materials and sustainable production. What does that entail exactly?
First things first: we produce on demand and don't stockpile. This is good because it means we only manufacture what is needed. What’s more, each order is perfectly tailored to the respective customer’s individual needs and designed for a long lifespan. We work with modern machines with a highly efficient logistics concept, allowing us to feed leftover materials back into production. The wooden planks and chipboards we use are sourced from sustainable forestry, our metals are only finished using a powder coating and we do not use any PVC in our polymers.
We are currently working with Leibniz University Hannover as part of a research project that aims to find polymer recyclates that can be used for high-quality furniture parts in its pure form. This is not easy, when you consider the low margin for error when it comes to furniture.
Your suppliers also play a role in recycling. Can you already notice a shift in thinking across the industry?
Area-wide, a resounding no. Price and function are still the main factors for decision-making in our industry. Sustainability still ranks far lower as a factor. REHAU is a pioneer in its craft here. With its sustainable edgeband line RAUKANTEX eco, REHAU had the right product for us at the right time.
Sustainable edgebands. You could argue that these are only a small part of a furniture piece. What makes REHAU’s concept so conclusive for you to implement it?
The portion of an edgeband on the component is not so marginal. Several linear meters are fed through the machines for each desk and cabinet. The REHAU concept of using edgebands with at least 50% recycled materials was therefore enough to convince us because it ticks all the boxes: availability, fabrication and aesthetic. We were impressed by the level of quality and the material/machine tests were successful. VARIO therefore made the switch from our previous polypropylene edgebands to the new RAUKANTEX eco edgebands. We have also been fabricating REHAU edgebands exclusively using the laser process for many years. The zero-joint technology is an important mark of quality for the furniture industry.
Durability over a throwaway model is one of your underlying principles. How courageous are your concepts for office furniture as recyclable products?
Repairs over disposal remains a basic principle of our company's philosophy. There is still a long way to go until a true circular economy is achieved in our industry. On the one hand, this is due to the demand for quality from customers. However, it also comes down to the willingness of customers to opt for a sustainable solution. That said, there are some promising approaches. We have just completed a project in which a company converted all of its desks into height-adjustable versions. The worktops and basic frames stayed the same. We just replaced the lifting columns and runners and added the electronics. There are also requests to convert classic office cabinets into cabinets with locker compartments. Here, it is important that we (or our trade partners) actively discuss the options with the customer and suggest and promote sustainable versions as part of these discussions.