Outdoor furniture maker Fermob is known for its colorful, design-driven, modern pieces that are found in gardens, parks, and patios all over the world. But that’s not all the French company is known for. The company also sets the bar for eco-design—sustainable, environment-friendly practices that benefit both the planet and the people using Fermob products. Fermob has historical links to the bistro chair since the 19th century. By 1996, the company implemented its first major environmental initiative: to eliminate waste from its painting processes. Since then, the company has continued to find innovative ways to reduce waste and energy consumption, earning recognition and sustainability honors in Europe and the United States
Here, Leslie Thompson, president of Fermob USA, discusses the company’s efforts to minimize its environmental impact, its long track record of sustainable innovation, and why doing good can benefit the bottom line.
What’s driving Fermob’s commitment to sustainability?
Fermob’s commitment to sustainability began many years ago—before it was popular, and before the term was even known in the U.S. Because Fermob designs and manufactures furniture to be used in nature, it was a logical extension that the company would value the environment. Fermob’s mission statement says that the company wants to be in harmony with nature and with people. And sustainability truly lies in the heart of the owner of the company.
Bernard Reybier bought the company 30 years ago, and when he decided to turn the company from a manufacturer into a brand, he surveyed all the employees, and asked, “What are we good at? What are we most known for? What’s most important to you?” And the most common thing employees said was how Fermob respected the environment. So, it’s not a new concept in Europe and it certainly wasn’t a new concept to Reybier. He has really been a leader in this for a long time.
How has Fermob put sustainability into practice?
In 1996, Fermob invested in a zero-waste painting line. It was really innovative, but it was also very costly—the company invested 25% of its sales dollars in it. Then, in 2016 we started capturing the heat that is generated from the painting line and recycling it. So even though the company was growing, energy usage did not go up.
Part of Fermob’s mission is to design and build light, durable products. Fermob uses steel and aluminum for almost all its products—and those are the most recycled products on earth. As a result, more than 98% of those metals are recycled.
And with any new product, Fermob asks, “What are we going to do with this?” Fermob makes a product with a mesh seat back, and as they cut pieces of the fabric to put on a chair, they gather up all the pieces so they can send them back to the manufacturer. That fabric manufacturer can recycle and use the pieces, so there’s zero waste. If you’re just cutting a cushion, what do you do with the excess waste? We recycle it. We’re always thinking: How do we recycle this? Where do we recycle it? It’s a continuous process that changes, depending on what we’re making.
Does focusing on sustainability make manufacturing more difficult?
I’m sure it does, but I don’t hear that talked about. I hear it discussed from the standpoint of, “What can we do to improve?” It does cost more, but it also saves in other ways. One example is the bistro table tops that we make in 10 sizes. We were able to change how they’re manufactured and cut the amount of raw material by 50% in the top itself. That was good for the environment and good for the bottom line.
It’s like when you invest in LED lighting—it cost $10,000 to put them in, but in the long run, it saves money. A lot of things that companies can do may cost something on the front end, but in the long run, it’s the right thing to do for the environment.
How do you make sustainability part of the company’s culture?
The more you do it, the more you pay attention, the more you think about it. It just starts becoming part of who you are. At Fermob, it’s part of the DNA of the company, from the owner and the board of directors to the environmental manager and staff. They meet and talk about environmental issues in the company several times a year.
And the regular employees are part of that. They’re asking, ‘What can we do better?’ When you start to improve something, some things that need to be changed are very obvious. Sometimes it’s just changing our mindset. Sometimes it’s investing. It’s not a one-time thing. You start to build a new piece of furniture and think: what is that furniture’s impact? You have to continue discussing it, because things are changing.