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Mix Roundtable: The Only Way is Ethics

Should designers and end users alike be pushing to source products that are more local, original and can be proved to be ethical, sustainable and ‘good’?

Feature in partnership with Bisley

22/04/2021 8 min read
United Kingdom

Ethical sourcing and design guides how designers work with clients, colleagues, and the end users of products, how they conduct the design process, how they determine the features of products, and how they assess the ethical significance or moral worth of the products, that result from the activity of designing.

We were recently approached by a leading industry figure, who suggested we should be talking about the sourcing of products – where products really come from, where the individual components originate, the IP of products, the production and manufacturing process (think human rights issues, fair pay, working conditions…)

So, in light of the fact that the pandemic has severely impacted on the lead times of products from the East (traditionally one of the major ‘selling points’), should designers and end users alike, be pushing to source products that are more local, original and can be proved to be ethical, sustainable and ‘good’?

And it’s certainly good to be back – back with colleagues and friends, back in Clerkenwell and back in the groove, discussing something other than the pandemic. With lockdown gently lifting, we’ve taken the opportunity to partner with our friends at Bisley and (safely) gather a number of fine industry minds to discuss ethical design and sourcing at the leading British manufacturer’s brilliantly refreshed Dallington Street showroom.

We begin by asking our sponsor about what, historically, this means to their business.

Robin: We’ve had ‘Made in Britain’ for centuries now. At one point we made virtually everything that was being bought here. Over that time, Britain has been known for quality products and a huge history and heritage in manufacturing. It now hits home with a lot of people that the world is a lot smaller than it once was – and you can buy products from just about every country you want to.

Bisley is known as having one factory and one factory only, stemming from Tony Brown saying that he wanted us to make absolutely everything ourselves – and not using off-shore production or subbing product out.

The issue, however, is that not everything is available in this country and, as much as you want to source small componentry in the UK as much as possible, rather than other countries, you can’t – because you can’t get every product here

Tim: British design can still be quite industrial and utilitarian – and the design influence from other regions has forced a change. This means that some companies here in the UK have got to catch up a bit now.

Adam: For me, the distinction between made and assembled is possibly the most important point here. It’s very easy to say ‘made in Britain’ when really something is just screwed together here. If a product really is ‘made in Britain’ then it becomes something much more valuable – but that needs another layer to the conversation. Most people don’t really understand that something that is made in a factory here might actually just be put together here using Chinese components. I think we need to have that layer of transparency when it comes to whether a product truly is British made.

Michelle: I still get excited when new local brands emerge – and it is nice to support these brands. You know you’re getting the quality and the consistency. You are also able to actually meet the people behind these brands – and you then start to buy into their narrative. Your client can buy from these brands and be told the history and the backstory. So, in terms of ethical design, you know their story and you are able to totally trust and support what they do and where the products come from. If I’m buying a product from overseas, I might not know about the backstory – and there are so many box ticking exercises and paper trails that are more difficult to source when you’re looking at international brands rather than local brands.

Tim: It’s still hard enough to find this on British brands, to be honest. It’s not always easy to get honest, reliable answers in terms of the supply chain. You might say that you’re a British manufacturer, but actually you ship your frames in from China and simply spray them over here!

I think that there’s another factor here – which is the Brexit factor. This has already had a significant impact on our industry. Import duties are an unmitigated nightmare for the furniture industry at the moment. That has a massive attraction when it comes to promoting British manufacturing right now.

I do think that ethical procurement goes much deeper than just where something comes from. It’s much more important to understand what social impact these products and brands have – this, for me, is just as, if not more important than where a product comes from. What does this product do that delivers something different to our communities? We’ve all been involved with big projects and the reality is we can be lazy when it comes to looking at where something comes from. One of the most fundamental things about what we do as an industry is to promote stuff that we say is ethical – but we need to tick far more boxes and understand much more before we can truly say that what we’re doing is ethical.

It’s a little like sustainability: you can, of course, put a few ticks in a few boxes and say that you’ve got a certificate, but how deep do we really go when we look at what this really means?

Michelle: What we’ve started to do is to send a questionnaire that goes to all our suppliers and dealers. So, whether it is a carpet tile or a chair, they fill in this matrix, which has about 45 questions – and these questions go right down to things such as transportation and packaging, the whole story from start to end. We then have a traffic light system, where we score these products and companies. This is just what we do in-house right now – but you certainly don’t want to be on the ‘red list’ because we will simply move on to the next supplier.

I do think it is the responsibility of the designers and the end users to ask these questions. I also think that we already know a lot of the answers to a lot of the questions – we just haven’t written them down and evaluated them before.

Tim: I did a job many moons ago for a major British client in Salford Quays. They wanted to do everything via British suppliers. We also had a traffic light system, which asked several really pertinent questions. One British supplier had absolutely no information when it came to corporate social responsibility – and so initially scored ‘red’. What this did is to focus their business – to start shouting out that they did employ people from different backgrounds etc. There are still some manufacturers out there who are horrendous when it comes to sustainability, ethics and morals – but will all score ‘green’ because they are so good at ticking boxes.

As a dealer, we’re stuck in the middle sometimes. How do you balance that? I think, if you’ve been in the industry long enough, you can turn around and call people out. It is a difficult one though. It’s not acceptable to ship stuff in from China, in a plastic bag, and call yourself a British manufacturer. We have some amazing design talent and we’re brilliant at making stuff – we just don’t make enough of it, and we don’t make it cheaply enough.

Michelle: Do you think we’ll start to make more stuff post-Brexit?

Justin: I think that clients have to be prepared to pay for it. I’m sure that businesses like Bisley here would invest in this if people were prepared to pay. I was talking to a project manager recently who was saying that he’s seen much more activity in the past three months, but each of these projects are smaller and with tighter budgets – so it’s not easy right now. There are certainly products out there that tick all those boxes, but clients just aren’t prepared to invest in them right now. I fear that this is where the buck stops.

Adam: I think it is starting to change. There are some much more enlightened clients out there, whose drivers are much more complex and sophisticated than merely financial drivers. I also think that the industry in five years’ time is going be very different in terms of what procurement requires. There’s going to be carbon budgets sitting next to financial budgets.

Michelle: People are now much more aware – there’s a more informed generation coming through who will start to infiltrate and then, hopefully, lead by example.

Fiona: I do think that COVID has brought about an opportunity – an opportunity for people to change their mindset from what they were doing and what they had previously, to something potentially very different. That’s really exciting. It does take something monumental, such as the pandemic, to make us change in this way. So the opportunity for a change in mindset and a real focus on people is there – we’ve all realised how valuable we actually are. We’ve all missed each other and can’t wait to be back together again. I think that, in terms of ethics, fair pay, equal opportunities and inclusivity, we have the power to push right now – and we should push. I think that if we do push and do include these things in our tenders, then customers will see this and start to pay for it. It costs us all – those of us who are passionate about our work and about doing the right thing – and it’s so frustrating when you lose on price, even though you’ve delivered exceptional value.

One of the ways we’ve found we can add value is through a local model; where we can facilitate furniture reuse, rehoming and redistribution locally.

That might not make you any money, but at least the furniture goes on to have another life. There needs to be more of a circular model.

Robin: The problem we have is that we employ over 500 people, and so need to make 13,000 products a week to cover the costs for their livelihoods!

Adam: I do think that procurement is now starting to come from people who have more diverse backgrounds. We now have real estate professionals who, because they are much more diverse in their backgrounds, want very different things – and they also realise the difference between price and value. I’m not saying that this means there’s going to be blank cheques for everyone – but the drivers will start to be very different. You simply can’t cost a job on a ‘per square foot’ basis any more. Everything is now much more flexible and fluid.

Tim: Until someone really starts drilling down into the furniture industry for proper answers, people will just keep ticking the right boxes.

Adam: We’re working on a project right now for one of the most high value brands in the world. They want to only buy second-hand desks and chairs – which is proving to be quite complex! This isn’t a money thing – they could buy the most expensive desks in the world, but they’re not going to. They’re prepared to take a risk – and you need clients who are prepared to take risks. Once they do it, others will follow. Our client also extended the procurement phase of the project so that we could source from a more diverse and inclusive supply chain. So, they’ve actually taken a hit on the programme in order to be more inclusive and diverse.

Things they are a changing – albeit slowly. There’s certainly a new generation of more diverse-thinking leaders emerging for whom box ticking exercises and a certificate simply won’t do. Maybe the pandemic has given us a pause for thought, and led more people to start thinking about value rather than cost, about community, about transparency and about their own impact and the legacy they will eventually leave behind. Let’s hope so.

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