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Donate to destruction

As we right-size our spaces for the new world of hybrid working, Criteo’s Mike Walley ponders the life cycle of our office furniture.

10/06/2021 3 min read

I have been pondering furniture recently – driven, I suspect, by the large quantities of it I suddenly find I have no use for, concedes Mike Walley. As we right-size our spaces for the new world of hybrid working, and redesign those spaces that we will keep, I find myself awash with desks, chairs, monitors, pedestals and huge meeting tables.

There is not much of a market for second hand furniture, not in any quantity at least, so it has a low intrinsic value, and this presents me with a couple of problems: how to get rid of it sustainably, and how to avoid spending a fortune doing so. It used to be that we could find a school or charity that could make use of the items that we no longer needed. This improved the working environment for the recipient’s staff, avoided dumping stuff into landfill and made us feel like we were helping a little. A win/win!

The trouble today is that so many businesses have had the same idea, all the possible recipients within 25 square miles of our office now look like they have been designed by the best in the business. They are all sitting on Steelcase chairs, meeting in Vitra pods and balancing laptops on Allermuir Host tables (other brands are available). So, when I ask if they are interested in another 698 desks, they just laugh.

The other knotty question is who will pay to have it moved. Back in the day, when conscience alone drove us to donate (as opposed to Corporate and Social Responsibility reporting), it was very often the recipient who would come and collect. That solved our problems and they got nice stuff for the cost of a rental van. The sheer volume of furniture that we are dealing with now has closed off this avenue as a viable option. I’d need to identify hundreds of recipients, hire a fleet of lorries and employ large numbers of fitters to dismantle and refit. I would have to go into the furniture business full-time.

We are also now much more concerned that these items are recycled responsibly at the end of their life. It may feel wonderful to freecycle unwanted furniture but if, at the end of its working life, it will just end up in landfill, the point has been missed. It is not really the done thing to donate furniture while requiring the recipient to sign the equivalent of a pre-nup to guarantee what happens when the gifted material reaches end-of-life, so you need to do your homework on the recipient and ensure they are committed to sustainable behaviour. This does, in all probability, rule out the majority of furniture brokers, as their role is to sell on as fast as possible, not to check the green credentials of every prospective client.

I hate to say it, but I think it is now almost impossible to do anything other than to directly recycle this stuff ourselves, particularly if we want to ensure it is handled sustainably. This will come with a price tag and so, in the future, consumers will need to consider the total cost of ownership as purchase, maintenance AND disposal.

Ultimately, I want to see the manufacturers play an end-to-end role in the life of their product, much as car makers are beginning to. Make it sustainably, sell it thoughtfully and help us recycle it responsibly.

Now, I have a terrific deal on 1,000 penholders – if anyone is interested. Anyone?

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