In Conversation with Richard from CSRa and Adam from Design Conformity: An interview by Katie Furmston

Join us as we talk all things sustainability, with our strategic partner Richard from CSRa, and Adam from Design Conformity. Hosted by Katie Furmston, this interview primarily focuses on the importance of sustainability in businesses and the challenges associated with implementing sustainable practices.

Adam discusses Design Conformity’s role in supporting furniture manufacturers by promoting circular design and implementing a continuous improvement cycle. Richard from CSRa emphasises the need for a holistic approach to sustainability that encompasses environmental impact, social responsibility, and profitability. The discussion highlights the significance of sustainability storytelling and the role of communication in promoting sustainable practices.

Emphasising the importance of integrity in sustainability efforts, combating greenwashing, and providing tangible results backed by data.

They highlight the importance of collaboration and engagement within the business to create a sustainable journey that aligns with the company’s values and goals. Additionally, they encourage companies to take initial steps towards sustainability without being intimidated by the complexities of the industry.

It would be good to start with the brief history of Design Conformity and CSR accreditation?


Design Conformity is an independent design standard, it was created to support furniture manufacturers, and help them to better understand the benefits of circular design, reporting the environmental impact of their products, but then implement a circular process of improvement. So, there’s a continuous improvement cycle to that reporting. We work with some of the largest interior fitout companies in Europe, we work with companies in Sweden, in Spain, in France, and Poland and Germany. We’re starting to work with companies in Canada and America as well. But the UK is our predominant market.


And I’m Richard Collins from CSR accreditation, and we take a holistic approach to sustainability, in the sense that we don’t see sustainability purely as an environmental endeavour. We take a view that sustainability must be something that a business embraces in terms of its people – its profitability, its success, its impact reporting, and of course, its impact on the environment. Therefore, working with organisations, like Design Conformity, who are providing a standard, in furniture manufacturing, is useful, because it’s about how we can then provide opportunities to the audiences that we talk to, around how they can embrace, standards that independently verify and check what they’re doing. Because again, this is all about the data and about the data being trusted and validated.

And that fits very nicely. Again, I think what we’re seeing a lot now is around the impact that supply chains have on each other, and how that information can be communicated up and down the supply chain, depending upon where your organisation is fitted. CSR accreditation are the only global accreditation body for environmental and social responsibility, and we use a framework of the four pillars of environment, workplace, community, and philanthropy which all overlap. And we provide consultancy, impact report writing and training. I’m independently a senior adviser to your party’s parliamentary group for ESG. And I only mentioned that because of that connection, we usually compliance build into how we understand an organisation’s sustainability reporting, and the relationship between investment and risk and mitigation.

Collaboration is vital to achieve sustainability.

Richard, why do you think it is so important for everybody to be shouting about what they are doing within sustainability?


Well, I think that the dial has shifted. I come from a branding background, and I think, 20 years ago, we used to say your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. And really that branding statement comes from the attitude that your customers were talking about how great your products and services were. And that’s not to say that it’s not about how great your products and services are. But I think the thing is, if you’re a business doing something, then it should be given that what you’re doing is the best you can do. So therefore, that kind of brand reputation is now about the responsibility that your organisation has towards the planet and towards its people.

That’s matched with a growing individual sense of responsibility that we have as human beings, especially in the last four or five years pre-post pandemic, we’ve seen shifts in attitudes towards plastics in the ocean, for example, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the list goes on. So those environmental and social issues, and then there’s a growing mandatory requirement, especially around things like the new corporate sustainability reporting directive that’s coming in next year through the EU.

And, of course, the current TCFD, which is asking businesses only to report on their sustainability. So, there’s a mixture of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do and mandatory requirements, because we’re moving into a situation where this is required to report on it. And ultimately, it’s about how businesses build a purpose driven culture. So, I think the biggest part of what we see now, is businesses that are trying to engage their staff, are trying to retain that staff and are trying to attract talent. And the attracting talent is pivotal, really, because this new generation have a very, very different attitude about the kinds of businesses that they want to work for.

So, if you’re looking to recruit, I think people want to work for businesses that are making an impact, and doing something to build a better legacy for future generations.

Absolutely. And, Adam, you're doing the similar thing with your team, and with DC in general?


Yeah, we recognise that, as Richard said, there’s a really big shift in what type of companies’ people want to work for, and how responsibly engaged those companies are.

As a small business ourselves, we’re looking to engage more designers at a younger age, we’re looking to make our workforce more diverse, but also provide a purpose. And our purpose, ultimately, is to become the furniture industry’s largest independent design standard in Europe. That’s a big aspiration. But we’re working with a lot of large organisations and specialist organisations like CSRa, to empower the companies that we’re working with and the supply chains that we work with. Because being in the manufacturing industry, there are a lot of people in the supply chain. There’s very much a need for them to improve and understand and I think companies like CSRa can help them help them to do that.

I've received a lot of talk now about this commitment to get to NetZero carbon, how are you both fitting into this commitment?


We have a more holistic view, as opposed to Design Conformity being more of a skeleton approach, because it’s a specific industry sector. The whole point of NetZero is to reduce and minimise the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere. Now we know we can’t do that; we’re always going to be putting carbon into the atmosphere. So outside of that there are technologies we can employ that remove the carbon from the atmosphere or extend the removal of carbon. I think if you’re looking at furniture, and you’re looking at repurposing, you’re extending the lifecycle, then you’re extending the carbon footprint of a product, and therefore you’re reducing its carbon impact. And that’s part of that carbon offsetting.

We’ve got to accept that we have use clever, innovative carbon offsetting strategies that match the fact that we are going to always continually be putting carbon into the atmosphere and that we get that equilibrium, which is ultimately what that NetZero goal is. And there’s time to do that. And what I find very inspiring about this is it’s the mother of invention that is creating great innovation. So even though we’ve got the spectra of climate disaster, which is real and out there, that this is driving, a lot of innovative technology and coming up with sustainable standards to ensure that future manufacturing processes, comply with a journey towards next era, it’s just a brilliant thing to do and should be encouraged. And that builds into that bigger picture. So, it’s helping other organisations, whether they’re retail outlets, or whether they’re individuals, to commit to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere.


I think to build upon that, yeah, you’re right, it is a journey, it is a process. And we very much see design as a tool to reduce carbon through that design evolution, and life of products.

NetZero is an aspiration technically achievable. But as you said, it falls an awful lot on offsetting. If you’re able to reuse, repurpose, upcycle products and furniture, you reduce the amount of offsetting that you provide.

And it’s a slippery slope we’ve got customers who immediately ask, how quickly can we offset? And then we’ve got other customers who say no, we fully appreciate it is an ongoing process, we’re going to alter our business model, we want to reduce the amount of carbon that we consume as much as possible for us and our customers. That’s really where we get the best out of what we do.


Well, probably one of the oldest forms of carbon capture as furniture, isn’t it? Because if you’re building wooden furniture, and you’re going to an antique shop and you’re buying a table that’s 400 years old, it’s captured that carbon for all that time, and I’ve spoken to antique dealers recently who have got a new generation of younger audiences because they’re buying antique furniture as part of their commitment to keeping that carbon locked up. 

So I think there’s a it’s a bizarre, historical perception of what do we think of carbon capture being, but I think you’re right that it’s also about, efficient design innovation as well. And building longevity and reusability into your product lightning as well which a lot which we weren’t doing. And we got so caught up in a runaway kind of, you know, consumerist complacency, throwaway society. And that’s just got to end.


We’re seeing an impact very much on that throw away society with risk mitigation with the data that we report, the information we brought back on the companies is very often shared in environmental risk and financial risk management, because those furniture providers are running out of trees. And when you run out of trees you’ve got to find a substitute material, or you’ve got to start replenishing and reusing the materials that you initially had. 

That’s where design plays an important part.

Richard, what have you found to be one of the most challenging aspects for CSRa so far?


It’s a double-edged sword in many ways because we have our trailblazers, the companies who just do it, they know it’s right, they’re looking for something and just to sort of pull that back, the organisations are falling over themselves to show that they are sustainable. In many cases, they’re already doing a lot of things already, but they don’t know how to start. And that’s where we come in.

We have a great starting position, those four pillars, of environment, workplace, community, and philanthropy, and a process that begins the sustainable journey continues, one that’s been started, but with no clear destination or direction so we help navigate that sustainability landscape. There is an appetite for that. So, in many ways, we’re pushing against an open door, and people want to do it, the biggest problem is capacity and resource of money, so, to do these things properly, you’ve got to put resources into it, you’ve got to have people who are prepared within the organisation to drive it forward.

The block sometimes of organisations is that we want to do this, but not now, we don’t have the finances or time and that’s because they can’t see beyond a current position. We’ve got a cost-of-living crisis, we’ve got an energy crisis, we’ve got all sorts of things going on, in the West. But we can reposition it to show businesses that this is a commercially sensible thing to do. This is an investment in future proofing their future. And this is going to make a huge difference to the culture within their organisations. 

Adam, can you elaborate on how Design Conformity encounters this?


We see the same thing very much. We talk to companies; manufacturers are made up of lots and lots of different individuals who all have different skill sets and sustainability means different things to different people. At the top of the tree, where you’ve got the CEOs and the executives it’s a business builder and it’s an opportunity to stay relevant, to stay on point to hopefully be able to create some kind of market demand and shareholder demand by being very sustainable.

Then if you look at the other end of the scale those people who are building the furniture, the guys who are working on the factory floor. It’s a turnaround in how they’re processing and using materials, how they’re saving materials, how they’re taking products back. It can be very disjointed. And very often, there’s a lack of collaboration. And that’s where it’s suffering. I think that’s your point.

Collaboration is vital to achieve sustainability.

In the companies that we talk to, there’s a varying desire, either external or internal. So very often, it’s customer driven. So customers are pushing these organisations to be more sustainable with other companies, we’ve got champions within those organisations that are leading change. But as soon as you ask the question, how do you become more sustainable? How do we make our products more sustainable? It has a large knock on effect to the business model.

And so initially where the executives could be, let’s go in and report the environmental impact of our products. Let’s look at how we can highlight how these could be resold and reused and repurposed. And then the production director comes in and says, and how are we going to repurpose these? How are we set up to take back that equipment?

So there is there is a disconnect, but I think we’ve got some amazing customers that we’re working with who are trying to overcome those challenges. And the more that it’s discussed, the more that the case studies are shared, the more that other people realise that there are organisations out there achieving it and doing it.

It’s not always new either. Tesco, for example, have been repurposing and reusing their their metal shelving systems for some years now.

There are a number of companies out there that are making use of take back schemes and repurposing – office companies like orange box, there are a number of companies out there, but they tend to be fairly specialist organisations, there isn’t a kind of a collective initiative in the industry. 


I think you’re right, I think the thing is, sustainability isn’t new, we haven’t just invented it. It’s been around for a very long time.

The attitude of building sustainability into society isn’t new, but we go through this pendulum and moving forward I think as we came into the late 60s, early 70s, and we moved into that sort of consumer, throwaway society, we lost respect for food, and we lost respect for energy and the value of these things. And we’re getting a rebound.

That’s a natural ebb and flow. But just to pick up on what you were saying about engagement, it is important, and there is a desirability of certain people that they want to do this, they see the benefit of this.

And, of course, there is a short term cost, but there’s a long term benefit. And one of the phrases that I remember being told years ago, was that businesses have to learn to think like oaks, which is think for 300 years think for 500 years, not just think, for the short five year turnaround cycle of a government, for example.

I think that’s very important, because you’ve got to position your business in a way that you want it to be that for the next generations to come into, and you’ve got to leave them a legacy that they can pick up and take.

I think we’ve got the opportunity of doing that and I’m very optimistic, despite all the negativity, one of the things that we forget about sustainability, and everything we’re talking about today, is it’s really good for positive storytelling, providing you can support it with positive story doing.

This is where what Design Conformity is doing is critical, because that’s the independent recognition and validation. So that’s what we love to say, as an accreditation body because it’s evidencing an organisation’s commitment to doing something so in a way, you’re enabling that and and validating it.

And that means we can then take that and then put that into that bigger sustainability mix. And before I forget, I just wanted to also mention that going back to the NetZero topic within that decarbonisation thing, there is, of course, the scope one, two and three reporting on scope three now is becoming a significantly important factor in the way organisations now need to think about the products and services that they buy in and use and the carbon footprint associated with that.


This is one of the reasons why we’re very excited about working with you. We have as soon as you touch your manufacturer, you know there’s 25, 30 or 40 suppliers that they all interact with. And collecting data from those efficiently, effectively, professionally is very difficult. And by working with CSR accreditation, we’ll be able to glean that information from the supplier base and help manufacturers achieve that scope three reporting for their for themselves and for their customers.


What’s great about that is that this is a really brilliant opportunity for stakeholder engagement. Because the thing is we can’t do this on our own. So it’s an opportunity.

We’re working with a company at the moment, we’re just doing their materiality work. And that’s a survey that’s going out to all their stakeholders to say, well, what’s important to you, you tell us? With regards to that sustainability conversation, and within the survey questions, we talk about the carbonisation, scope three reporting, but we also talk about gender equality and diversity inclusion, we also talk about community engagement, but what we’re able to do is collect data that’s come from the stakeholders, the staff, internal stakeholders – but what a lovely way to to have an excuse to go and talk to people within your supply chain, to talk to your customers to ask their opinions and it’s something that we don’t do enough. 

I think, because it’s also about setting leadership, and helping them on their sustainability journeys, but learning from them, because they might be doing things that are just genuinely brilliant that we can build into our models. So this is, again, super opportunity to create that thought leadership and that sustainable wisdom and share the best practice within all the communities that we operate in.

Richard, you touched on this idea of storytelling; what do you think of creating this narrative around sustainability? And what is something that will help companies to embrace their sustainable journey?


Yeah, absolutely. We love stories. Humans love stories, it’s as simple as that.

It’s about telling our sustainable stories and sharing our journey and communicating that because it is a part of the problem we’ve got now.

I think, and it’s only my opinion, in this case, is that we’ve got, COP 28 coming up, we’ve got Davos, we’ve got all these kind of lofty state run, government run, the big four and all that sort of stuff, making decisions. And I think we feel left behind, we don’t feel that we’re part of that. And yet, we desperately want to do something to make a difference, because that’s part of our human condition. So I think this allows us as people to be part of a sustainable journey. And part of that storytelling is letting people know that we’re making a difference. 


Absolutely. For us, we work in an industry, where you’re buying into a brand, you’re buying into a style, you’re buying into heritage. All of those are, in some ways, micro stories.

When we look at the sustainability of furniture, we look at the journey of where it’s come from, how it’s been processed, and where it’s going to, and what happens to it at the end of its life. So that becomes a story.

And people want to see that snapshot of time as to how sustainable it is. And one of the key differentiators that we’ve created in our Eco labelling is the ability to define how sustainable it would be if it was reused.

Designing for reuse and repurposing and reusing is core to the design principles. It indicates the existing carbon footprint and then the future carbon footprint if it was reused, so that somebody can have an impact on its story, somebody can take that story and adapt it to their part of their life. So we very much support that storytelling. I think nearly all the brands, the designers that were the working with are trying to tell the story in their design process.

I've been looking through the CSRa website and one of your values is to inspire. I was really interested in what has actually inspired you in your role, Richard?


Well, I think the idea of sustainability has always been there from a little boy, up until adulthood, I’ve always had that sense.

I don’t know whether that came from my parents, I can’t really put my finger on where that’s come from. There’s also this kind of alignment of stars, where my whole professional career has kind of come to a point.

So, moving into the idea of branding, storytelling, communicating, I’ve been involved with the green organisation, for the best part of 30 years, which is the longest running environmental awards in the world now. And I think what inspires me is how other people are doing inspiring things.

I get so inspired by the people I meet on this journey, the people I work with, the people I talk to, it’s just astonishing, and it really does make you feel brilliant about the world, despite the fact that on the surface, we have a war in Ukraine, we’ve got terrible things going all over the place.

But you know, this is the creaking gate that gets all the attention, and all the good stuff, doesn’t get attention, and yet I can just rattle on forever about the most incredible things that people talk to me about – from algae impregnated concrete, to beehives, and chopping metal roofs, to little tiny things that people do that add up. And so I think that’s what inspires me is other people doing amazing things because they care about you. 


I think it all started with specification and design and just this realisation. I’ve been designing and specifying originally lighting systems, for retailers and brands for 15 years or more. And there’s a direct correlation between determining and developing a really good design brief, implementing a really good specification, and then reaping the benefits of that specification for years and years afterwards. And typically, in the very beginning that was very much kind of saving energy, and reducing watts. 

Over the years, as I’ve collaborated with more people, it’s more about the the journey of that product, the full display product, or the interior fit out equipment or the furniture. But it still comes back to that same thing, the power of a really good design. And that’s what inspires me. I think it’s absolutely incredible. I think we live in an amazing country where there’s a lot of innovation, and there are a lot of very, very good designers out there that are creating change. And yeah, right now there isn’t an environmental crucible happening. We’re being forced to come up with incredible actions and change. And we’re a very small part of that. But it’s exciting to be part of that group. And I think that inspires me.

A key part of a lot of what you both been talking about comes around this idea of communication in different methods. And do you see this as a key part of how both CSRa with its validation and recognition can work together with DC around this accreditation aspect?


Yeah, absolutely. Not just working with DC in helping to provide intelligence and value and thought leadership around the biggest sustainability storytelling, but also, how Design Conformity’s customers can embrace what we’re doing and become an accredited organisation and proudly show the mark that DC is developing in terms of furniture and product design, but also, how that is used to engage their people to communicate to their audiences and so on and so forth. So I think without communication, this is nothing. A lot of people don’t really consider communication as an important aspect of what they’re doing. Whereas as we just said, the storytelling component to this is actually important, that’s actually critical.

We’re able then to promote, the benefit of what DC is doing to some of our audience, because obviously, we work with companies, from micro businesses to multinationals.

And like DC we have an international presence we have CSRa Arabia, we’re setting up currently CSRa in North America. And we’ve got consultant partners in 17 different countries now, so it’s helping build that sustainability community around a common goal.


An incredible goal. I think that’s the problem with communication now in the sustainability industry in the wider press is the intensity of greenwashing. And I think yesterday, I noted a piece on LinkedIn, where the European government are talking about locking down on greenwashing and making it harder and harder, and qualifying those claims. And, like CSRa, we are very committed to integrity, and making sure that the process of our reporting and our communicating is embedded in data. And results, you can’t get away from that. We never want to express an opinion, we don’t give gold stars and awards for design and design interpretation we give results that are based on kilogrammes of carbon. It’s very, very specific in its nature. So I think communication is absolutely vital, but it has to be very, very strong has to be very, very creditable. And that’s why we’ve partnered with CSRa.

Fabulous, thank you both so much! To finish up, I was wondering if you could both in one sentence, what would you recommend companies do if they're right at the beginning of their sustainable journey?


For me, it would be engage – engage with all the stakeholders within the business to create a brief that is based upon collaboration.


And for me, it’s to start, to do something, don’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by the industry jargon and acronyms and, the complexity that appears to be out there. It’s not rocket science. So use those four pillars and start your continuous sustainably journey. Don’t sit there and do nothing.

For more information on starting your own sustainability journey get in touch today or book a call with our CEO Adam.

Katie Furmston
Katie Furmston

Head of Design & Research

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