Ecological strategy in public furnishing: a french example

        Modern societies have correlated living comfort with the quality of the technical objects and equipment they produce. However, it is now admitted, because of the pressure it exerts on the climate, that the scale and the very processes of this production are in conflict with the sustainability of modern comfort at the very least. If this observation is becoming consensual, the solutions to resolve the contradiction are so wide-ranging that it is sometimes discouraging to look for one in particular. For this problem, as for most things, it is all a matter of arrangement: it is a question of the forms that the organization of production takes. If technical progress is welcome to alleviate the pressure that our economic systems exert on our environment, there are nevertheless strategies that do not require waiting for it too long. A French example can allow us to imagine, certainly in a circumscribed way, virtuous institutional forms where production while answering in the first place to a very concrete problem of comfort also allows to attenuate but especially to control our impact on nature. This prospective example aims to show that the means for large-scale action on climate change exist and that all that is needed is a clear political will to be mobilized in the common interest.

"The industry exported 2.7 billion euros worth of wood in 2019, compared to, for example, an import of chairs worth 4.4 billion euros..."

        France is in a special situation with the 3rd largest forest area in Europe. As a considerable carbon sink, the forest absorbs 20% of the country's emissions. A central issue for any ambition of ecological transition. However, the wood  industry that exploits these forests suffers from severe problems that have direct consequences on the environment. Reserving an ever-increasing share of its production for the export of raw materials that are then reimported in the form of processed products, the industry exported 2.7 billion euros worth of wood in 2019, compared to, for example, an import of chairs worth 4.4 billion euros, which is almost double that of this particular category (1), not to mention semi-finished products: plywood panels, parquet and others. This gap therefore offers room for maneuver to considerably reduce emissions related to furnishings, home equipment and wood construction, by ensuring local processing rather than transporting hardwood logs and processed products from one end of the globe to the other. Moreover, this mode of organization results in an industrial management of the forest that favors for the short term the plantation of softwood monocultures that harm biodiversity and disregard the necessary multi-functionality of forests (2). If incentive measures can be imagined to stimulate the sector, it seems unlikely to achieve the soft forestry that is needed to capture even more carbon dioxyde without ensuring markets for more expensive but better processed products.

Illustration of digitalized trunks / Image ©

        However, symmetrically, there is a considerable need for furnishings and furniture in the entire public sector on which the state can intervene via public purchasing guides and subsidies. Administration offices, national public establishments, schools and universities, police stations, libraries all these places represent a lever in the hands of a state concerned with supporting a real ecological wood industry. Especially since some of them have outdated equipment, whose arrangements made there are sometimes several decades old and are poorly adapted to contemporary uses and which harm the quality of public service tasks that are performed as well as the well-being of the agents who work there. This real need is an emergency to renew the link that unites the citizens to the public service which is none other than their common good. This real need is at the same time the opportunity to develop a network of companies capable of transforming wood from log to furniture on a large scale, sure of their outlets, while sparing the climate the round trips in container carriers and the operations performed today in countries where the energy is more carbonated and therefore weighs more heavily in the environmental balance of furniture and semi-finished imports. Moreover, it is an opportunity for the public authorities to attach qualitative conditions to this vast ordering program as to the origin and management of the forests from which the wood will come from, as well as quantitative conditions by adjusting the pace of production to the needs of the long term and the regeneration necessary for a soft forestry.

"The Mobilier National could have as a task to elaborate a catalog of modern wooden supplies and equipments that could be reproduced by subcontractors, or even by its own workshops."

        More concretely, in France there is a national service attached to the Ministry of Culture that is in charge of furnishing matters: the Mobilier National. For the moment, its furnishing missions are limited to the high administration and the presidential residences. These missions are therefore naturally intertwined with operations of conservation of the furniture of historical and patrimonial character which belongs to the State. However, there is also within the Mobilier National a department of research and contemporary creation, the ARC, set up by André Malraux in 1964, which in addition to making the French creation shine by the realization of small series and unique pieces intended for the places of power or prestige, gives itself among its stakes: "the edition of furniture in larger series, way to return to the orders of the first times as well as to the social and democratic ambition of which they were bearers", while underlining the objective that "its realizations must benefit to the big institutions as well as to all the public places"(4). The existence of this national service thus offers an ideal institutional basis to the implementation of a system of public planning which would offer outlets and counterparts to a reasoned wood sector while supporting contemporary creation. Thus, public authorities concerned with setting up such a system could extend the furnishing missions of the Mobilier National to a multitude of places and administrations. As a key element of mass production, the Mobilier National could have as a task to elaborate a catalog of models of modern wooden supplies and equipments that could be reproduced by subcontractors, or even by its own workshops when tasked with furnishing a public space within its vicinity. It would thus centralise the requests for equipment from public places that choose to use its services, not only by commissioning industrial designers to draw up its catalogue, but also by selecting furnishing projects carried out by interior designers. So many projects that will thus be able to irrigate the wood sector and the many trades that make it up with orders. This clear offer of outlets will allow the Mobilier National to require in return the respect of a strict code of practice as regards sustainable management and transformation of the wood resource that it could elaborate jointly with the national office of forests (ONF) and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). The specifications are therefore of primary importance, as they are intended to be modified over time according to the desired or observed evolution of French forests: To accompany the return to a soft forestry by encouraging the use of hardwoods and by limiting the use of Douglas pine stemming from the monoculture, to accompany the change of species resulting from the warming of the climate by preserving for example from the cut the best adapted species, to modulate the origins according to the zones of seasonal drought, so many strategies that it is urgent to establish precisely and to set up.

          This programme implies, of course, giving the means to the Mobilier National to carry out these tasks, but apart from the costs of setting up such a system, the bulk of the expenses are already covered by the local communities, which already obtain their supplies from private catalogues, often from imports. The corresponding public investment therefore represents only a marginal additional cost compared to the considerable ecological benefits it could generate. All the more so as the expenses of the local communities for the equipment of the public places for which they are responsible represent an investment which is therefore financed by the recourse to credit, today facilitated by historically low rates. It is clear that all we need is a strong and determined political will to take back in hand the exploitation of forests, the production of wooden objects and the equipment of public places on an ecologically virtuous and responsible basis.

Athime de Crecy

1. Numbers from the Harvard University atlas of economic complexity.
2. The need for soft forestry is broadly described in the interviews conducted during the citizen inquiry commission on forest led by the french member of parliament Mathilde Panot.
3. Notice from the Ministry of Education "Educational furniture, help for the elaboration of a functional specification".
4. Le Mobilier National - "research and creation workshop, new challenges".