The Tremendous Economic Loss in Old Office Furniture

Office furniture, as innocuous as it seems, poses an major challenge for unsuspecting businesses. What do you do with it all when you move?
Office furniture, as innocuous as it seems, poses an major challenge for unsuspecting businesses. What do you do with it all when you move?

By Nicholas Buccheri

It’s difficult to imagine why office furniture matters outside the office. Until you see a thousand-line spreadsheet of items destined for the landfill, there’s little to connect your sleek new executive chair – or anything else in your office, for that matter – to an ongoing environmental and social issue.

Those in corporate real estate and facility management know well that large organizations continually shuffle people around, renovating and moving offices and discarding older furniture, equipment and supplies in the process. The real eye-opener is how much of this furniture makes its way to the dump – somewhere in the millions of tons annually in the United States and Canada. (It’s actually so poorly monitored that there is little data to go by).

It shouldn’t be as easy as it is today to ignore hundreds of thousands of tractor trailers filled with usable furniture and supplies, if not more, traveling to the dump each year. If we’re ever to effectively control the greenhouse gas emissions, harmful leachates and habitat destruction associated with landfills, practices like this have to end.

Then there’s the tremendous economic loss. In the process of dumping usable goods, billions of dollars in recoverable natural and synthetic resources are lost. It’s a huge amount of economic activity to short circuit — and well before these products even come close to the end of their lifecycle.

And while the issue isn’t likely to make the sustainability headlines with the likes of climate change or global water scarcities, its solution isn’t nearly as complex either. There is little more than a lack of imagination, experience and planning preventing organizations from effectively repurposing and recycling no-longer-needed assets.

Part of the problem is that clearing out an office seems straightforward. Until you’re staring down the barrel of that thousand-line spreadsheet, it seems plausible, maybe even likely, that everything can be resold or donated easily. After all, businesses invest a lot into their office equipment and naturally assume it can be resold for a comparable amount.

By the time decision-makers realize that the second-hand furniture market is limited and that large-scale donation is itself a complex project, they’ve wasted too much time to implement an effective solution. They’re left with no real plan and a dwindling timeline. At the risk of delaying other components of a broader workplace project, they turn to the only option that requires neither time nor strategy: a liquidator (or worse, a junk-removal service).

In either case, a majority of the items are landfilled. Liquidators tend to sell the most valuable items and dump the remaining inventory by the ton. Junk-haulers will sell various pieces for scrap returns and landfill the rest. The result is garbage — literally and figuratively. These solutions achieve little-to-nothing and virtually guarantee that usable products and materials will be wasted. Hence the millions of tons of waste produced each year.

Turning an environmental risk into a social opportunity

Risk-Opportunity-1To solve the problem, two main things have to change. First, organizations have to take seriously the way they manage surplus office furniture. As long as it is an afterthought to a broader workplace project, usable products will continue to be haphazardly discarded.

Second, the commercial sector needs to recognize the risks and opportunities that come with managing commercial equipment – more specifically, how to turn the environmental risk into a social opportunity. A higher standard of planning and integration can recover measurable value where there is typically only a loss.

In-kind donation, for instance, is cost-effective, and environmentally and socially beneficial when properly executed. It removes the hard costs of landfill and provides nonprofit organizations – some of which go decades without updating their office interiors – the opportunity to improve productivity, employee satisfaction and even safety. It can also free up budget for core programs and activities. Plus, it’s a novel, cost-effective way for corporations to engage with community organizations and nurture community partnerships.

Combined with resale and recycling, it becomes a powerful triple-bottom-line tool for businesses.

But it requires decision-makers to reevaluate their used office assets and start planning early. This means working with multiple departments to capture value — from those on the ground floor, like facilities teams, to those who care most about the outcome like sustainability and communications teams. It means tracking the landfill diversion rates and community impact across all office projects to benchmark performance and work toward improvement. And it means changing procurement practices and vendor relationships to better close the loop on office waste over time.

It strikes me that the way businesses currently manage and dispose of used office furniture serves as another gut-wrenching example of just how wasteful we can be, even with corporate sustainability and social responsibility entering the business mainstream.

Office equipment makes a difference, not only in the way we use it (as in completely and utterly depend on it in nearly every aspect of business), but also in the way we treat it at the end of its life. And, as we’re seeing across the board with waste, energy and water, amazing things can happen once you challenge the complacency of an industry — things that directly help businesses, the communities in which they work and the greater environment.

That office furniture has impact isn’t up for debate. The only question is: What are businesses doing to make sure its a good one?

Nicholas Buccheri is the marketing and communications manager at Green Standards, a specialized sustainability firm that helps corporations manage their office assets responsibly, and a freelance communications consultant to mission-driven organizations and businesses.

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