Business Essentials: 'We're going green but we're not out of the woods yet'

How can a furniture maker produce the best finish without harming the environment?
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The Independent Online

These are frustrating times for Morgan Design, a small furniture manufacturer based in Salisbury. It is the firm's philosophy to act as a model business for other small companies, workshops and joiners in the community. But environmentally, this is proving difficult. While it is consistent in its use of sustainable source materials, it is in the last stage of the furniture-making process that it feels it is falling short.

"We work with wood, the most environmentally friendly product there is, and we source all timber from sustainable forests and use any offcuts to heat our workshop," says managing director George Morgan. "But at the end of the manufacturing process, we have to inject some sort of longevity into the furniture and to compete with British industry standards. We end up using products that are environmentally unfriendly."

These range from cellulose to polyesters and from acrylics to oils. He admits there are alternatives. "But we feel these products offer the best durability and help achieve the effect desired in the design," explains Mr Morgan. "You could substitute oil-based products with water-based ones, for example. But typically, we can't get the same finish."

The quest for quality is important because the six employees at Morgan Design create top-end, bespoke furniture. The firm wants to keep its reputation as one of the UK's top 20 makers of designer furniture.

At the same time, though, it doesn't want to undermine its own determination to be as ethical as possible. "We have been working environmental issues into our business plan for the last couple of years," says Mr Morgan. "This isn't just because it's fashionable. We genuinely care about it and it has dawned on us that this is something we ought to be taking seriously."

With the Hazardous Waste Regulation having come into force on 16 July this year, he wants to make sure he is acting legally, too. The legislation has involved a reclassification of most "special wastes" as "hazardous" ones. Most businesses, including Morgan Design, are likely to produce some of these; they are now responsible for making sure they have the right procedures in place for storage, treatment and disposal. The alternative is facing litigation and fines.

Disposal poses a particular problem. "We don't end up with a huge abundance of waste. But like any small business, we do have tins left over. Currently, we just get rid of them in the bin bags supplied by the council, as well as chucking what we can on the wood stoves. But are there better ways that would fit in with the new legislation and our commitment to the environment?"


Jacqui O'Keeffe, Partner, Environment & Safety team, Denton Wilde Sapte (Solicitors)

"Small and medium-sized companies like Morgan Design are likely to find compliance with the legislation rather challenging, as it can be a complex area. The first step will be to undertake a waste audit to identify what is classified as hazardous and what isn't, so appropriate action can be taken on storage, reuse and disposal.

"Producers of hazardous waste must register with the Environment Agency, and they are subject to a duty of care to ensure that everything is disposed of by an authorised carrier.

"The Environment Agency has wide-ranging discretion to deal with breaches of legislation. Depending on the offence, enforcement could range from an informal caution in the first instance to prosecution where hazardous wastes are removed from unregistered premises. The action taken will be in relation to the number and type of offences committed."

Richard Barnard, Director of Ashact, a Division of
Hyder Consulting (UK)

"Some of the activities mentioned could give rise to compliance issues. Liquids that might pollute the ground or surface water if spilt should be handled carefully and securely stored - ideally in a bonded area. Typically, untreated wood waste may be burnt in a wood stove, but not usually with anything else.

"Make sure you know the difference between non-hazardous and hazardous waste: disposing of the former with the latter - 'just to be on the safe side' - is a waste of money.

"Empty, dried-out tins of varnish or lacquer can usually be disposed of with general waste, sent for recycling or, better still, collected for reuse by the supplier, eliminating waste completely. Good environmental practice can often go hand in hand with sound business sense.

"If in doubt, get assistance - it can save an awful lot of time and money. Advice is available free from organisations such as Envirowise or from the websites of regulatory bodies."

Martin Gibson, Programme Director, Envirowise

"Minimising finishing and solvent use is a very important way a manufacturer can reduce its impact on the environment. Morgan Design should look at its application techniques to ensure it wastes as little finishing material as possible.

"There are environmental benefits to using products that last longer, and these could outweigh the damage during the manufacturing process. Morgan Design should keep a close eye on product innovations and speak with its suppliers regularly to see if more environmentally friendly products have come on to the market.

"In the meantime, proper disposal is the key. The company should not burn wastes, and disposing of them in conventional bin bags might be breaking the law. If hazardous waste is disposed of with 'normal' waste, the whole bin will be considered hazardous and disposal costs will increase considerably.

"It is Morgan Design's responsibility to know what waste is hazardous. It can get free guidance from organisations such as Envirowise and should also speak to its waste contractor."