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Since the 1990’s, the unprecedented growth in furniture manufacturing, especially between 2001 and 2007, has positioned China to become a major export player to markets in the U.S. and Europe.

Exports to the U.S. alone have risen 35 percent annually, with China now providing half of all U.S. furniture imports. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which removed numerous trade and investment barriers, helped support this growth and simultaneously satisfy consumer demand.

Initially, China’s low labor costs, abundant resources and investment in technology gave the country a competitive edge in manufacturing. However, a rapid rise in production also had a downside—specifically, a “green concept” that included environmental and sustainable considerations and processes was not a top consideration during that time.

Nonetheless, as China’s market share of the global furniture industry expanded, these issues moved to the forefront. Today, manufacturers and consumers alike are seeking to incorporate and apply sustainable solutions to furniture manufacturing.

In this respect, China is uniquely positioned to become a global leader in sustainable furniture manufacturing if it can successfully integrate its rich cultural heritage in furniture making and expert artisans who excelled in joinery with modern methods and materials.

For example, early Chinese craftsmen designed and built furniture to last many years, using woods such as rosewood and mahogany. These craftsmen did not use nails or glue in the construction, but expert joinery. The refinement and functionality of the furniture itself, such as cabinets that were meant to have multiple functions over their lifetime, added to the sustainable nature of Chinese furniture from that era.

Chinese traditional wooden box

Not surprisingly, wood and wood products are a primary element in furniture manufacturing and as the world’s supply becomes tighter, the use and re-use of wood becomes more important. Quick, renewable sources like bamboo, used in a creative way, provide a fresh and sustainable alternative to new and developing trends in the furniture industry. It’s worth noting that China is a leading world producer of bamboo.

Is now the time for China to “go back to the future” and incorporate historic styles and methods of furniture manufacturing with the latest technologies and materials? The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay higher prices for sustainable furniture and Chinese manufacturers have an unprecedented opportunity to lead the industry in sustainable furniture manufacturing.

Already, China is exploring these opportunities. The country recently established an “old-for-new” government subsidy program for furniture, similar to a previous program for appliances. Simply put, the idea is to incentivize consumers to buy new furniture and recycle their old furniture, which primarily goes to low-income users.

Although the program has been challenged by higher than expected costs, it represents a step in the right direction for progressive and sustainable thinking, particularly when it comes to keeping used furniture out of the landfill.

Within the industry, furniture manufacturer Maria Yee, Inc. stands out for its environmental efforts. In 2007, the company inaugurated a 350,000 square-foot factory, which was the first industrial building in China to wholly employ hydronic heating. The facility also features 14 skylights each measuring more than 420 feet in length, which eliminate the need for electrical lighting during the day. All scrap materials are either consumed in the operation of Maria Yee’s factories as fuel or recycled.

Furniture manufacturers from the U.S., Europe and South America have expressed their interest in partnering with Chinese furniture makers and capitalizing on this collaboration. This spirit of collaboration shows promise in advancing sustainability in the industry on a global scale, benefiting manufacturers, consumers and the planet. The “green revolution” is underway and the future is bright.

Article : Gloria Bernard
Photo : New San Cai

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