Becoming a reality

SOFEA is getting ready to go live with its first categories for the environmental rating of office products.


Sustainable Office European Association (SOFEA) President Matthias Schumacher says he is looking forward to a positive 2017 after the environmental product rating organisation made good progress on a number of fronts during the past year. The senior tesa executive points to the finalisation of the A-E rating system – which has been ratified by key trade partners such as Staples, Office Depot, ADVEO, JM Bruneau and Antalis – the creation of an IT platform, and the establishment of a new identity and partnerships as some of 2016’s main achievements.

“We feel that we are on track,” he notes. “We will be ready to publish the first product groups under the rating system from the middle of next year and we will use Paperworld 2017 to go public.”

Schumacher believes the concrete progress that has been made will give SOFEA more visibility and help attract more members, especially from the UK, Germany and France.

Vital role

One company that has backed SOFEA from the beginning is Staples. “We understand that we play a vital role in our industry to improve the standards of eco-conscious products and to broaden the understanding and awareness of our customers around these standards,” says the reseller’s Head of Marketing & Merchandising Europe Thomas Nowak.

“Staples appreciates that it cannot work in isolation to improve these standards, so is grateful that SOFEA allows us an important opportunity to work with vendors and key industry players to form the future of environmental product labelling in our industry,” he adds.

“By consolidating as an industry, Staples feels that we can create greater transparency and understanding of what constitutes an environmentally-conscious product and better support our customers in making informed choices. Also, the independent scientific panel, which ensures that the outcomes from SOFEA are scientifically robust, is key.”

Nowak recognises that membership of SOFEA has enabled Staples to embed its own requirements into the association’s criteria, ensuring that the needs and questions from Staples’ own customers have been taken into account. When Staples begins to promote SOFEA’s criteria to these customers, it means vendors that have participated in SOFEA will be in “an advantageous position”.

“We do of course understand that some vendors might need some time to join," adds Nowak, "but we will have a deadline for when the SOFEA methodology will be our green criteria for relevant product categories going forward.”

New identity

Earlier this year, SOFEA launched a new brand identity – including a refreshed logo and revamped website – which reinforces the progress it has made. “Our members want us to be the leading European voice in the office supplies industry, and I am confident we can meet or exceed all expectations,” enthuses the association’s Managing Director Anita Singh-Gunther.

Part of SOFEA’s strategy has been to build partnerships in order to enhance its visibility as an authority in the field of sustainability in the office supplies industry. This has resulted in links with German association BAUM and Netherlands-based initiative Sustainable Office.

In September, a kick-off meeting was held for SOFEA’s online platform powered by Factor X, a leading sustainability consulting firm. “We have chosen an existing system that is flexible, clear, easy to use and which communicates with other systems,” highlights Singh-Gunther.

The first wave of pilot group members from the notebooks, filing and writing instruments categories will be able to enter their data in the web-based platform in early 2017, leading to their products receiving a SOFEA rating.

After several years of hard work, the SOFEA rating system will truly become a reality in 2017.

Inside a pilot group 

A key benefit of SOFEA membership is the ability to shape product scorecard criteria by participating in product working groups. A number of pilot groups have been successfully setting the standards for the wider community to follow.

Leading the pilot group for filing products is Esselte’s European Sustainability Manager, Jacqueline Wellhaeusser. Here, she provides some insight into the role and workings of a pilot group.

OPI: How is the pilot group organised and how does it work?

Jacqueline Wellhaeusser: The filing pilot group is made up of five companies – all SOFEA members – which volunteered to invest the time in creating this rating system.  

During seven face-to-face meetings and various conference calls, we have worked on what products this group covers, how they can be evaluated, what evidence will be required and what scores will be awarded for the different criteria.

OPI: How are the criteria decided upon, agreed and then validated?

JW: The basic requirements to be considered are set in the SOFEA framework. The team had to consider each requirement to decide if it is relevant for filing products and if we could find a feasible way to assess it. 

In the filing group, there are quite a lot of relevant existing ecolabels such as FSC, PEFC, Blue Angel, EU EcoLabel or Nordic Swan. We found that between all of us we had experts on nearly all the labels and so could often use the existing label frameworks to create criteria. 

In this way, companies can also use their existing labels to fulfil the criteria. If they don’t have the labels, they can still fulfil the criteria by providing the same evidence as they would if they were applying for that label.

However, in some cases there were no existing criteria, so we worked together to create them and found ways to assess what needed to be assessed. We almost always found a consensus quite quickly, simply by reminding ourselves we are looking at what the actual environmental impact of the product is and not what we think or assume is better or worse. 

Sometimes we were surprised by what actually makes a bigger or smaller environmental impact. For example, with filing products the impact of the packaging is absolutely minimal, so there is no point in having complicated criteria to assess the packaging.

The validation of our scorecard will be finally done by the Scientific Committee.

OPI: What have been some of the challenges you have faced?

JW: A big challenge is to be detailed enough to make the assessment meaningful and not too superficial, but keeping it simple enough so that it can work. 

SOFEA is intended to be a living framework and we have tried to settle on solutions that are workable for now but which we can look to improve on in the future.

Filing is a particularly complex category. The definition we set was ‘organisation, storage, classification and preservation of paper and digital information holders’, which covers products from lever arch files to letter trays, pockets, folders and archive boxes. We still have some work to do to translate the basic criteria we have set for filing to each sub-group and ensure the scoring works for all.

OPI: So what is the finished article?

JW: The finished article is the scorecard, which shows how the products will be assessed. This will be refined to make specific criteria for the different sub-groups. 

The scorecards are now being integrated into the third-party software platform, which will make the data entry much easier and enable the final rating for each product to be defined.

OPI: What has been your personal experience of being on the pilot group?

JW: The project has been hard work and challenging, but very rewarding as well. It is a perfect example of how collaboration can help us to be more sustainable. 

The companies which have worked so hard on this have made a great investment in helping the OP industry to be more sustainable in the future.