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
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 supplierOK 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.
FSC WITHIN THE
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
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
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
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
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
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 remainwhy 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!
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 standardsee
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.
ANNEX B AND
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.
FIRA GOLD QUALITYSEE
Blueline was the first office furniture manufacturer
to obtain FIRA GoldEurope's highest furniture quality awardon
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.
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
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
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,
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.