Strengthening the Commercial Furniture Industry – Advocating for Innovation, Sustainability, & Education

BIFMA
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Marking its fiftieth anniversary, not-for-profit BIFMA International—the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association—plans to kick off 2023 by celebrating the milestone at its annual 360 Leadership Conference at The Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island January 23-25. The conference is BIFMA’s signature event, bringing industry leaders together around current topics facing the industry.

The association was founded in 1973 from a general industry need to define uniform safety and performance standards for the furniture industry. BIFMA’s mission is to manage and develop furniture standards that embody safety, ergonomics, health, sustainability, and performance. The organization further provides market data, thought leadership, and industry outreach celebrating the significant influence furnishings have on people’s daily lives.

“First and foremost, our role is to maintain the industry standards that define safety and promote performance for the furniture industry. These standards provide customers and designers who specify furniture the ability to make confident procurement decisions in the furniture that they select,” explains President and Chief Executive Officer, Deirdre Jimenez.

BIFMA further understands that the relationship between interior design and furniture design is collaborative and celebrates the design and innovation that its members contribute to the evolution of the built environment.

Not only is the association a resource for the industry itself, but BIFMA is also highly valuable to the stakeholder community who depend on the furniture industry. The association’s outreach provides both customers and designers with the resources to distinguish and identify furniture products that conform to industry standards. BIFMA also offers its LEVEL certification program to clearly identify furniture products that have achieved rigorous environmental, social, and health and wellness criteria.

“While interior design creates the aesthetic and circulation of a space, furniture activates the space. By nature of its function and tactile connection to people who use the space, furniture plays a significant role in the human experience,” says Jimenez.

BIFMA is accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to develop the furniture industry standards. BIFMA Director of Safety and Performance, Anthony Serge, explains the lengthy protocol involved in developing these standards. “We are accredited and audited to follow ANSI Process. This begins by convening a broad representation of stakeholders to provide input. This may include educators, government, manufacturers, suppliers, consultants, test labs, et cetera,” he says.

Once the criteria are defined and the content has been written, the standard proceeds through a debate and voting process that ultimately results in consensus. The effort to maintain the standards is in large part credited to the numerous member volunteer committees. BIFMA collaborates with a multitude of industry groups and government agencies utilizing its committee structure. Nineteen active volunteer member committees work on various standards and topics that continue to be of interest to the industry.

The ANSI/BIFMA standards are voluntary and not mandated by the government. However, they are internationally recognized by government, public, and private organizations who require new furniture purchases to conform to the published standards.

BIFMA manages 20 standards and guidelines for lounge seating, desks, tables, panels, work surfaces, and storage units. In addition to product standards, there are non-product standards and guidelines for ergonomics, emissions, sustainability, textiles, and color measurement.

Furniture products change as society changes and our environments evolve. For that reason, ANSI requires that each standard is reviewed every five years, to determine whether it should be reaffirmed or revised.

The same drivers that cause existing standards to be revised can also give rise to new standards. BIFMA currently has four new standards in development. Two of these standards are being created to acknowledge the increased popularity they gained during the pandemic. The exterior commercial furniture standard supports the expanding use of outdoor areas, capitalizing on open air circulation, and a standard for personal privacy pods supports the desire for spatial separation indoors.

Also heightened by the pandemic, BIFMA is elevating two existing guidelines into standards. The furniture surface cleaning standard addresses the focus placed on cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting surfaces without destroying materials. The purpose of this standard is to protect products as new chemicals and cleaning protocols are being introduced into every type of environment, not just healthcare. Ergonomics, while around for decades, is benefiting from ESG conversations supporting employee wellness. The ergonomics guideline became more essential as people transitioned to different working areas, including their own homes.

Already widely known in North America, BIFMA’s standards also compare favorably to other international furniture standards. BIFMA is active in the International Standards Organization (ISO) and holds the North American voting seat for all furniture categories. BIFMA is actively engaged with ISO to work toward globally harmonized standards in the future.

One standard that is moving in this direction is the ANSI/BIFMA e3 furniture sustainability standard. Europe’s standard, managed by FEMB, references it and the two groups are collaborating on their respective revisions. BIFMA’s LEVEL certification program is based on the ANSI/BIFMA e3 furniture sustainability standard and aims to provide a free and transparent method to evaluate the environmental and societal impacts of manufactured furniture products. The e3 standard examines furniture through the lens of sustainability, and the LEVEL certification program evaluates products in achieving the criteria established in the standard.

“We align with independent certification bodies who review products and visit the manufacturers’ locations to certify products against a series of credits. Products can achieve LEVEL 1, 2, or 3, certification based on the number of requirements they meet. Once a product is certified it is entered into the LEVEL registry, which is publicly available,” says Director of Health and Sustainability Steve Kooy.

The BIFMA LEVEL registry lists and filters certified products and allows buyers to simplify their search for sustainable furniture. With over 4,500 products in the registry, LEVEL is the most widely adopted certification program for furniture in North America and is gaining interest in other countries. BIFMA has helped to raise the bar in sustainability for the furniture industry and is now a recognized label in the Amazon Climate Pledge Friendly program where LEVEL certified products listed on Amazon will now display the LEVEL mark.

BIFMA Compliant is another public resource. It is a registry of furniture products tested to conform to the ANSI/BIFMA safety and performance standards. BIFMA Compliant was introduced in March 2021 to serve as a resource for buyers and specifiers who want to quickly identify products that comply with industry standards. Prior to Compliant, designers and customers struggled to distinguish products that had been tested for safety and performance. There wasn’t a means to enforce or verify that the standards had been met for a product. To address this market need, BIFMA created the Compliant program, and it has massively simplified the sourcing process and brought transparency to the market.

“The Compliant Registry is free and publicly available. Products can be filtered by standard, category, or brand,” explains Serge. “As a requirement, products that are listed on the registry must have been tested in an ISO 17025 accredited test lab.”

The industry-wide Compliant registry has exceeded BIFMA’s expectations, and it now has over sixty brands participating, with more working to get their listing approved in the registry. Approaching 2,500 product listings—which can include full product lines—the registry now features hundreds of thousands of available products. Like LEVEL, BIFMA Compliant is available to all furniture manufacturers who want to participate. These programs are not limited to BIFMA members.

The mission to educate furniture buyers and specifiers is led by an initiative of the organization called BIFMA Learning. An increasing number of influencers are involved in the furniture procurement process including real estate professionals, facility managers, and interior designers. BIFMA aims to raise awareness with this group of stakeholders and extend that outreach to educators and their students who are entering these fields.

Many professionals have certification or licensure requirements for continuing education. “It’s a win-win because we have interest in educating the market, and industry stakeholders in the market have a need for CEUs. We have four CEUs currently, and we have two more that are in development,” says Jennifer Wammack, Director of Outreach and Learning. Through an initiative called BIFMA Faculty, the organization trains member volunteers to deliver accredited CEUs.

Since January of this year, another educational offering by BIFMA is the Monthly Learning Series. It is free for anyone looking to learn more about furniture. The content alternates between accredited CEUs and industry topics of interest.

In addition, a new focus for BIFMA is attracting the next generation of talent into the industry. The industry is full of professionals with twenty to thirty years of experience who are beginning to retire. To minimize disruption, the association wants to support the industry by helping college graduates understand the careers available and equip them with knowledge about the standards that drive the industry.

“We have identified, and our members have affirmed the need to attract and retain new talent, and increasingly more diverse talent, so we are really taking that charge on their behalf to supplement some of what they’re doing individually,” says Wammack. “One of the ways that we reach these audiences is through our CEUs (continuing education units).”

One of the newest committees is the Young Professionals group which reaches out to students interested in the industry to share the many potential career paths and how BIFMA members can provide these opportunities.

In addition to the vast resources BIFMA offers to the industry stakeholder community and general public, there are some exclusive services BIFMA provides to its members, perhaps the most popular being the events. The organization hosts the 360° Leadership Conference in January of every year, curated around current industry topics. Other major events include the annual business meeting and breakfast in June as part of NeoCon, the North American Furniture Trade show, and a Summit in the fall where all the 20+ volunteer committees made up of well over 100 members come together to share annual progress and future work plans.

The furniture industry is relatively small in comparison to other manufacturing industries, so economic drivers can have a larger impact. Since BIFMA membership makes up a significant percentage of the industry, BIFMA manages a statistics program specifically for members. This includes an industry outlook, benchmarking analysis, and regular economic forecasts.

Deirdre Jimenez provides her perspective on how the industry will fare: “Being an architect and interior designer, as I reflect on the history of architecture, the desire to improve the safety, comfort, and the aesthetics of our environments has not diminished. Furniture has played a key role in that history and will continue to evolve. BIFMA members built the industry and will lead the industry into the future.”

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