Setting the standards

After a few delays and a lot of work, Sustainable Office European Association (SOFEA) is on the cusp of launching its new rating system, which is set to shake up the future of sustainability in the business supplies industry. OPI's Joshua Allsopp talks


OPI: Let’s start with a brief overview of SOFEA.

Anita Singh-Gunther: SOFEA is a European association for the office supplies sector focusing on the environmental impact of the industry. We owe our existence to resellers and manufacturers that collaborate to collect sustainability data across Europe.

Put simply, our aim is to create an industry-wide EU rating system to encourage the proliferation of innovative, eco-efficient and responsible office products. To make this happen, we are taking into account customer requirements and existing standards as we want the system to be credible and accessible to end-users, manufacturers and distributors alike.

With this in mind, the SOFEA platform enables resellers and vendors to fill out a simple online assessment form which covers specific sustainability requirements. The findings will then be used to issue a completely transparent A-E rating that clearly shows how well the product performs based on our environmental standards.

OPI: What have been your key milestones and achievements so far?

ASG: In the past three years, we have focused primarily on building our methodology, one that is not only created by the industry, but that has also been refined through collaboration with the scientific community. 

That work is now over and we have launched the ‘SOFEA Assessment Scheme’ (SAS). SAS is a representative product scoring system that brings together the right elements from other sustainable classification schemes and fulfils the expectations of players at every level, across all parts of the sector.

At the same time, we have finished running our first three pilot groups. We learned a lot from these initial experiments and they allowed us to guide how we run the new tests. For example, the next set
 of groups will use a simplified pathway and the timescales have been made
 much clearer. 

OPI: How else did the pilots influence the next stage of the process?

ASG: The SOFEA online platform – which will be made available at the end of 2017 – will feature a questionnaire built around the findings of the pilot groups. This makes it easier for companies to assess their products against our standards resulting in an A-E rating. We expect to certify around 2,000 SKUs using data from the initial three-product group assessment. 

We have also enrolled our project into one of the European Commission-subsidised programmes, ‘NSR Interreg’. This has given us an opportunity to test the SAS in the government sector, which will help us to roll out our programme elsewhere. 

OPI: What can we expect from SOFEA in the coming months?

ASG: We have laid the groundwork for SOFEA and, working together with the industry, we now want the organisation to gain the recognition it deserves. Our members have volunteered their time to build a service that can now be considered an asset to the industry. We will continue to grow trust and credibility in our rating system by involving more parties from across the industry and by looking for partnerships that are complementary to our work. As mankind’s impact on the environment is such a global issue, we do not believe in flying solo. The only way we can make a difference is by working together. 

We will be closely following developments in the market to ensure that we can remain proactive and introduce appropriate solutions as and when they arise. We will also be looking to collaborate closely with the scientific community and the European Commission through subsidy programmes or other ways that match with our work. As I mentioned, we are going to start filling our system with fully-assessed SKUs and we will start to open new pilot groups next year. Then it’s just a matter of spreading the word about our methodology and online platform.

OPI: Why has it all taken so long?

ASG: The idea for the project has existed for a long time. It has great potential for success, but there has been much debate about the right solution and its appropriate implementation.

We are working with an extensive board and it is very important to listen to each member and use their input to form a solution. I guess it takes a lot of time when all those involved in the project are doing it alongside their day jobs. But with our milestones achieved, we are now ready to go live. 

OPI: Broadly speaking, what’s your view on sustainability in our industry?

ASG: Looking around, we see various initiatives being taken by companies to be more environmentally responsible. Everyone is consciously contributing to the well-being of the Earth in their own way and choose goals that suit their company. 

Sustainability is no longer one of those things that is nice to have but has become an integral part of many organisations and indeed individuals.

There is clearly customer demand for accurate product information like certification, energy use, recycled content, etc, and we should be able to access this instantly. It is our goal to consolidate this data and make it readily available to everybody. 

For more information on SOFEA, please visit

A word from the President

A new and exciting time lies ahead for SOFEA as we launch the online platform this December and I am very proud of what we have achieved so far.

We have invested a lot of time fine-tuning our methodology to create a trustworthy system for the industry. There will soon be a uniform rating to determine a product’s environmental attributes that can be recognised as standard across Europe. 

Right now, we are ready to roll out the first three online product scorecards: notebooks, filing and writing instruments.

We are then opening new product groups and are gradually filling up the online platform with reliable, accurate information that will be valuable to the industry and its sustainability efforts. 

2018 will be a very important year as we build upon our relationship with the European Commission and enrol the SOFEA project in the co-subsidised NSR Interreg programme. We will also be working to strengthen our ties in the industry.

There are a lot of things to look forward to and I hope you will join us in our journey.