Select Committee on Environmental Audit Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Blueline Office Furniture


  These brief notes provide a summary of the problems that Blue Line, Europe's first FSC certified office furniture manufacturer, has experienced over the last two years, when trying to introduce its products to the public sector.

  The Company is one of the UK's leading independent furniture manufacturers and has been operating from the East End of London for some 53 years. It batch manufactures rather than mass produces and this is an essential benefit in both quality and the ability to operate a green production policy. In addition to its FSC certification, the Company has championed "green" manufacturing techniques (all of which are delivering commercial savings) and is the only office furniture manufacturer to hold the Furniture Industry Research Association's FIRA GOLD Quality Award (Europe's highest furniture quality standard) on complete ranges. Full details, including copies of certificates can be found in Annex A along with a brief outline of FSC certification and FIRA GOLD and the essential differences between Blueline's manufacturing operations and the majority of its competitors (including those on the OGC list). These differences are relevant to why currently Blueline is in its unique position.


  Blueline products are comparable in cost, and in many cases lower, than the current suppliers on the OGC list, none of which hold FIRA Gold and FSC certification. Blueline is also endorsed by the WWF as "the ethical choice in office furniture" and has had its factory audited by Professor Tom Wooley, the international renowned "green" architect. (see Annex A)


  Firstly it must be stressed that the company did not expect to gain any immediate orders from FSC certification but did expect to have the opportunity to demonstrate its sustainable, quality, fitness-for-use and value-for-money credentials to Departments, which the Secretary of State had challenged (in June 2000) to purchase timber and timber related products from sustainable and responsible managed sources.

  However, experience to date has been one of total frustration, and increasing annoyance at the "lip service" being paid to stated Government policy. Since gaining FSC certification, Blueline has visited procurement departments of just about every central Government Department and has arranged factory visits for:

    —  Inland Revenue.

    —  HM Customs & Excise.

    —  Export Credit Guarantees Dept.

    —  Many local authorities.

  In all of these cases the primary objective had not been the "hard sell" but to engage these people in understanding what FSC and FIRA Gold, both third party certified standards, mean for the user. However, to date not a single organisation has even taken the step of benchmarking Blueline products and services against their existing suppliers (OGC or otherwise).

  Naturally attempts have been made to explore this reluctance and below are a selection of responses: These can be attributed to actual people and departments (if the Committee so requires) but we are obviously wary of the potential commercial risk of identifying individuals who are responsible for making purchasing decisions, as we may advance the cause of sustainability at the expense of ever achieving an order.

    "I don't care what Michael Meacher says I buy the furniture around here!"

    "We already buy FSC certified furniture—(Our response) sorry but we are the only supplier—OK but our supplier has a letter from his timber merchant saying he uses FSC timber. (Our response) Without chain of custody that is a totally unsupportable claim. I don't care it suits us".

    "We like your quality, FSC and price but I can pick up the phone and order from OGC. If I want to buy from you I have to go through a tendering process for large orders and justify my decision for small ones."

    "Life cost is all very well but I've no tools to measure it."

    "I don't care about sustainability I buy purely on price."

    "I've heard what you say but don't keep ringing me or you will p**! me off and I can stop you getting an order from any Government Department."


  The convenience with which Departments can buy from the OGC list is an obvious benefit but the fact that the existing contracts will run for several years before Blueline can seek a chance to be included, means that for the foreseeable future DEFRA's aspirations to implement sustainable timber purchasing will not happen. The Government's cross-departmental Sustainable Purchasing Group (headed by Dr Angela Coulton) has advised us that sustainability was not even considered when OGC was set up.


  The ability to specify environmental credentials, such as FSC, within the tendering process is another hotly disputed area. We are, at any one time, told it can be included within a general statement such as "timber from responsibly managed forests independently certified under the FSC or similar schemes" or "no it can't be included because of EC anti-competition rules".

  The pre-qualification stages of tenders do not include environmental issues because of the suggested obstacle presented by these same EC anti-competition rules. Our tender debriefs have demonstrated that these selection processes are invariably weighed heavily in favour of relevant track record within the public sector and often an even more finely defined track record. Therefore even if a will to embrace sustainable purchasing exists in theory, in reality the selection process is heavily weighted towards existing and /or the larger suppliers with the widest experience, suggesting a strong biase towards the old adage "that no one ever got sacked for buying IBM".

  Blueline is therefore caught in a classic Catch 22 situation of not having a strong track record and yet being unable to establish this track record without any opportunity to participate.


  DEFRA and the WWF have announced that they are keen to establish some pilot projects involving sustainable timber and despite identifying a number of potential examples neither DEFRA (who we assume is purchasing furniture for its own use) nor any other Government Department have shown the slightest interest in taking up the suggestion. For example, HM Treasury planned to purchase 200 desks for their move into King Charles Street. The Blueline salesman offering our services suggested that this might make a perfect pilot and obtained WWF's support but his idea was simply rejected with a statement that they would be purchasing off an existing contract.


  Recent dialogue with Government Departments has indicated a switch in excuse and they believe that the company may be too small to handle the demand. Blueline currently turns over approximately £3,000,000, which puts it well below the mass production companies but its 35,000 sq foot production capability is currently running at only one third capacity (with one shift), has been completely refitted in recent years with the latest CNC machinery and has a management team of experienced professionals in place to deliver an ambitious business plan to treble the Company's turnover in the next few years. Few office furniture manufacturers have survived 52 years, few actually manufacture, most assemble from panels produced overseas and most prefer to buy their metalwork from the Far East, whereas Blueline purchases its metalwork from within a 20-mile radius of its factory, both reducing transportation costs and exercising a positive influence over environmental, health and safety considerations, etc. As a manufacturer with a solid foundation stretching back over half a century, we are well positioned to accommodate any anticipated expansion in production through both organic growth and acquisition. The only obstacle to this growth is orders. Despite the "aftermath" of September 11th disaster and its impact on commercial activity in the last quarter of 2001, we are growing significantly in the more volatile private sector but not in the more stable public sector.


  Blueline has invested a considerable amount of money, time and effort in securing its third party certified environmental and quality certification to ensure that all of its claims can be verified and not simply used as a marketing tool.

  The type and quality of its endorsements underline the fact that the Company is putting into practice the sort of sustainable and green manufacturing initiatives that both the country and the world desperately needs. It employs what is believed to be Europe's most sustainable furniture designer to ensure that these claims are sustained and offers an all FSC timber alternative in every sector of its broad product range.

  Blueline never expected to receive any Government order without proving its claims nor did it expect FSC certification to be a golden chalice. What it expected was an opportunity to demonstrate, through benchmarking, that Blueline products met the quality, fitness for use, value-for-money and sustainability criteria that formed part of the Government's and Local Government's stated policy.

  Our experience clearly demonstrates that at all levels sustainable timber procurement, life cost, recycling and fitness-for-use in the field of office furniture are merely subjects for political sound bites.

  This submission is not prompted by desperation, the Company is expanding and successfully selling its products into the private sector, but exasperation at the total indifference it has experienced in dealing with central Government departments.

  Ask FSC, WWF or FIRA about Blueline and only one question will remain—why not buy from Blueline? If the public sector really believes Blueline is not up to the task suggest a pilot and give us the opportunity to succeed or fail!

May 2002

Annex A


  Whilst Blueline is unique in holding both FSC and FIRA Gold, there are no obstacles to UK or overseas manufacturers in securing these third party audited standards.

  There are however some essential differences between the way Blueline and its competitors manufacture furniture but these only highlight why the former is leading the way, but do not excuse the failure of the remainder to take up the challenge.

  The most effective catalyst to change will be user demand, hence Blueline's frustration at the lack of progress in the public sector's commitment to sustainable timber products.


  Unlike most office furniture manufacturers Blueline produces its standard products in batches rather than using dedicated, automated mass production systems. This does require a higher level of operator skill but still involves high technology CNC machinery and efficient, price competitive processes. Mass production is particularly suited to limited life products, which are discontinued as soon as demand falls below optimum production volumes. An element of built-in obsolescence (for example plastic knock-down fittings and either PVC edging or basic profiled MDF panels only protected by a layer of paint) is also common to limit product life and stimulate re-orders. Such methods of construction will not withstand the rigors of FIRA Gold testing. Batch production can support higher standards of craftsmanship and design and is far more flexible allowing additional design elements to be incorporated into standard products. Contrary to public perception, the price differential, if any, between mass and batched produced furniture, is small as the later can more easily embrace "green" manufacturing techniques, which save cost.

  As far as FSC certification is concerned there are two obstacles to many organisations achieving the standard. Firstly, many so called manufacturers actually buy-in panels from a range of suppliers. And secondly, they purchase timber products on almost a spot market basis. Both these factors are associated with complex supply chains and auditing both FSC and FIRA Gold would be a very complex operation. However, achieving FSC or FIRA Gold on perhaps one range would be possible if the will or the end-user demand really existed.


  In September 2000 it became Europe's first Forest Stewardship Council certified office furniture manufacturer, and since this date, all of its product have contained at least 70 per cent by volume is FSC timber.

  FSC certification is the only forest management certification system supported by the environmental NGOs, indigenous peoples and the timber trade. As a true management system the standard also involves fair wage (FSC is cited as being a major lever for the rise in the wage rates of black South African forest workers). Its credibility comes from the fact that it is independently certified, with the entire supply chain from forest to marketplace audited. Every organisation in the chain that takes legal custody of the timber is inspected and issued with its own "COC"—Chain of Custody Number, which appears on delivery notes and invoices. In the case of Blueline furniture, this provides a full audit chain right back to the forest of origin. All other forest management systems involve voluntary control and for example, in the case of the Pan European system (PEFC) forest operators can start with a low standard and simply commit to raise standards at a later date. Other concerns have been expressed about this standard—see press cutting enclosed with these notes.


  The Company is also a leading green manufacturer; for example it does not flat pack and package its products but uses trained installations crews and traditional blanket wrapping.

  It buys-back its furniture and refurbishes it before selling through a healthy second user channel.

  It also recycles its timber off cuts through association with other timber users and is working with FIRA (the Furniture Industry Research Association) to convert its sawdust into compost and help develop a system which will convert its redundant furniture into wood pulp, which will be sent back to its FSC certified particle board manufacturer to be reused in new chip board.


  Blueline is endorsed by the WWF as "the ethical choice in office furniture" and is similarly endorsed by the FSC. Professor Tom Woolley has audited the Company's manufacturing facility and strongly supports the green initiatives undertaken.


  Blueline was the first office furniture manufacturer to obtain FIRA Gold—Europe's highest furniture quality award—on complete ranges. It will shortly receive an Ergonomic Excellence award from FIRA for its height adjustable desking.

  FIRA Gold was created in the 1980s in response to public concern about furniture quality. At this time mass production "kicked-in" and with price becoming the overriding factor, many manufacturers cut quality to maintain margins. FIRA Gold encompasses all the leading UK and European standards plus some special "fitness-for-use" tests but what makes it different from these individual standards is the fact that it is audited. Other standards involve the testing of individual samples but there is no enforceable requirement for the full production to be manufactured to these standards. FIRA Gold, on the other hand, involves a minimum of two factory audits each year in which the inspectors check that all products holding this certification are being manufactured to the same standard as the original tests sample. In addition, FIRA inspectors may and do arrive unannounced for spot checks. If on any visit the inspector believes there has been a change in design or manufacturing technique, they may remove a fully assembled product, a sub-assembly or raw material and re-test it at the manufacturers expense.

  Typical tests covered by FIRA GOLD:

    —  Strength and Stability.

    —  Surface Finishes Adhesion of Surfacing & Edging Substrates strength.

    —  Cable Management.

    —  Ergonomics Assessment.

Annex B

Letter to Alan Marshall, Managing Director of Blue Line Office Furniture, from Diana Brown, Environmental Management Officer, WWF-UK

  Blue Line is a leading office furniture company and by gaining FSC certification WWF is confident that Blue Line will provide the office furniture sector with an excellent example of how it pays to be environmentally and ethically aware in the business world.

  The partnership between WWF and Blue Line is an excellent example of how WWF is being proactive with business and working with the most influential companies within each sector to drive forwards the sustainability agenda. We believe that by working with Blue Line, WWF can deliver a powerful message to office furniture manufacturers around the UK and indeed in Europe, about the need to source and sell timber products from responsibly managed forests.

  WWF fully support Blue Line's commitment to the environment and endorse Blue Line's FSC certified office furniture products as the environmentally and ethically responsible choice for office furniture in the UK.

  WWF would like to congratulate Blue Line Office Furniture for gaining FSC certification and for joining the WWF 95+ Group, the UK Forest and Trade Network, and we are looking forward to working together in partnership.

Letter to Alan Marshall, Managing Director, Blue Line. Office Furniture, from Tom Woolley, Professor of Architecture, Queens University

  I enclose a copy of my "Design Advice Towards Greener Buildings Report" on your premises in Barking. My considered advice is that you should attempt to relocate and create new premises that can be designed to be as green as possible. As a result my report is not as detailed and full of suggestions as it would normally be. While this may be a longer term strategy I feel that it should be part of your business plans. It may be worth commissioning a feasibility study which looks at the financial implications of such a move and considers the costs savings from having an efficient building. I have already spoken to LTS architects in London about this and they may have contacted you. Let me know if I can be of any further help on this.

  I would like to say how impressed I was with both your operation and your products and your obvious enthusiasm for and commitment to sustainable policies. I feel that you are a model of how a company can take on board green principles and put them into practice. Where many others have said that it can't be done, with a host of excuses, you have shown that it can. I would be happy for you to quote this endorsement from this letter and do not hesitate to contact me again if there is any way in which I can help to interest or convince architects and other specifiers of the benefits of choosing your products. Let me know if you would like a separate letter setting this out.

  I enclose the invoice for the Design Advice report. You should pay us and claim back the amount from the BRE using the form which they should have sent you. Do let me know if you have any queries on this.

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