Monday, September 29, 2014

Sustainable Furniture Case Study

Efficiency and best practice have always been fundamental to J T Ellis & Co., furniture manufacturers of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.

We never set out specifically to be a sustainable company. The fact is that the way we run the company lets us tick most of the sustainability boxes.

Ellis Furniture supplies kitchens and bathrooms to the retail sector and kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms and a whole range of specialised furniture to contract clients. These include care homes and hotels, and schools, universities and other buildings in the public sector.

 PFI has not been universally popular, but its been good news for us.

PFI operators frequently have an obligation to maintain a building and its facilities for decades. Ellis uses traditional glue and dowel construction with high quality timber, which means they offer a quality product that lasts for years - and at a competitive price. Every product from Ellis Furniture has a 10-year guarantee, but in practice it will last much longer than that. Indeed, in a corner of the companys showroom theres a suite of student furniture that was originally installed in Durham University in 1985. Its clearly seen a lot of use but its still functional. In principle it could be refurbished and re-used.

What makes a sustainable business?

First of all, the fact that Ellis makes durable and long-lasting products clearly demonstrates sustainable use of resources. Unfortunately, at present no-one gets recognition for making durable products. In the UK, where we generate 117 million tonnes of waste each year, the longer a product lasts the greater effect it has on reducing that figure - a contribution to sustainability that really shouldnt be ignored. Secondly, the company carefully controls its raw materials. Wherever possible, timber comes from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified sources, which means that every tree harvested comes from managed forests, and every tree is recorded and replaced. Walnut and cherry from the US are managed in a similar way but certified by a different body. Other countries have their own schemes. What is noticeable on the Ellis factory floor is that every stack of timber is tagged with details of origin. For every product shipped, the company knows exactly where the raw materials came from.   

I raised the question of energy security. How sustainable is a manufacturing business when there are predictions of national electricity blackouts within the next two years? Like most businesses, their energy supply is in the hands of the government, the generators and the weather. Its just not practical to have a complete back-up generation system, and its not as though the factory is producing anything perishable that needs refrigeration or chemical reactions that must be held at a critical temperature. Of course there are essential services that must be protected so theres a UPS in the computer room which will permit a managed shutdown of IT without loss of data. Theres also one diesel back-up unit on site. It sits next to a massive water tank which feeds the sprinkler system. Every Monday its fired up to prove its ready and waiting should an emergency occur.

And renewable energy?

What about renewables? A 200,000 square foot factory has a lot of roof area and its no surprise that solar panels are under serious consideration. They will never supply all the factorys needs, but the current subsidy regime means they will make a significant saving and certainly more than pay for themselves.
Another aspect of energy is more problematical. Ellis Furniture has to dispose of waste, and offcuts of timber and strip are collected by a company which remanufactures them into particle board. All very green, although Ellis still has to pay for the waste to be taken away. Enter the government with its subsidies for biomass boilers. The policy was set up to support electricity generators such as Drax Power - operators of the UKs largest power station - to convert to more environmentally-friendly biomass. (Whether it is truly environmentally friendly is a debate for another day!) In view of the massive investment involved, some £700m, the government has confirmed that the scheme will stay in place at least until 2037. Back in Huddersfield the regulations mean theres a choice between recycling the timber waste at a cost and saving money on energy by burning it in a biomass boiler. It's a simple choice. Burning it in a boiler is not as green as recycling it, but this is business.

Why ISO 14001?

Putting in an environmental management system (EMS) to ISO 14001 was in response to public sector clients. A lot of the implementation involved documenting practices and procedures which the company already had in place. The fact that the EMS has been installed means that clients immediately know that Ellis Furniture meets recognised standards. Indeed, having the standard is frequently a condition of tendering. Clients know that the EMS is revalidated each year, in this case by BSI, which is an added incentive to the company towards continuous improvement. With this in mind Ellis undertook a lean manufacturing project, which led them to a fundamental re-arrangement of the factory layout. They freed up enough space to allow them to give up off-site storage facilities and save the cost. The revised layout improves productivity as the work now comes to the operatives, following a logical flow, and they no longer have to follow the work.

What about packaging?

Most Ellis products are sent out without packaging. The majority of the business is with the public sector and contract customers. The company delivers these orders on its own transport, securing units to the sides of the van and separating them with blankets, which of course are used again and again. Units for the retail market are packaged in cardboard as the company does not handle delivery to the final consumer and needs to make sure they arrive safely. At least the cardboard can be recycled.

And finally

Ive often said that sustainable business is good business. It makes sense to get the standard and get the credit for it.  Ellis Furniture proves the point that good businesses are generally sustainable.

Thanks to Tom Ellis, Joint MD, JT Ellis & Co    

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