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Green Business

Promoting sustainable development while purchasing office chairs

Case study of the European Commission, Office for Infrastructure and Logistics, Belgium


The Transport, Mobility and Support services unit of the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics of the European Commission in Brussels is responsible for procurement, removals, warehouse and stock management and the inventory of property.

In 2019 it launched a joint procurement procedure with a view to signing a framework agreement for the supply of office chairs designed in a sustainable and socially responsible manner. The framework applies to 44 contracting authorities among the EU institutions, agencies and bodies across the EU. These contracting authorities place orders directly with the contractor, while the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics is responsible for the overall management of the framework and for the purchasing of chairs for the Commission in Brussels and the European External Action Service.

The Office for Infrastructure and Logistics has a significant experience with the inclusion of environmental and social criteria in its tendering procedures. This started with advanced green criteria and six years ago they started including specific social aspects, too.

Procurement objectives

The contractor’s obligations involve the performance of a comprehensive, integrated service, including the supply of nine types of office chairs designed in a sustainable and socially responsible manner, in compliance with the technical description provided by the Commission; the provision of made-to-measure services, transport, unpacking, assembly, recovery of packaging, and training; and the setting up and updating of an ‘online catalogue’-style application that provides the contracting authorities with all the administrative, legal and technical information needed to place orders. Office chairs must be delivered to 27 locations in 16 EU Member States.

Before launching the tendering procedure, and in order to identify social and green criteria that were both ambitious and marketable, as well as to determine the certifications and labels to be required from bidders, the contracting authority carried out preliminary research and informal consultations with a network of experts. The experts consisted of national public buyers and independent experts in the environmental and social domains (e.g. the FCBA technological Institute based in Paris and SAW-B, the federation of social economy associations and enterprises based in Wallonia, Belgium).

Criteria used

The contract was awarded to the tender offering the best value for money in terms of quality (50%) and price (50%).

Technical specifications:

The technical specifications set out 15 mandatory sustainable development criteria. Offers failing to meet these criteria would be disqualified. The specifications primarily related to materials (wood and wood-based materials, adhesive and glues, textiles, leather and colourants, the origin of hides and skins and prohibited hides and skins, chemical substances, use of flame retardants and phthalates, marking of plastic components, use of surface coating of plastic, and/or metal components). The specifications also required extended product liability, design for recycling, energy and water management in production, and packaging. For further information, please consult Annex IV.3 of the tender here.

For the assessment of each of the mandatory criteria, tenderers had to attach to their tender as evidence an official Type I ecolabel such as NF Environnement Ameublement, Blue Angel, Nordic Swan Ecolabel, EU Ecolabel Furniture, EU Ecolabel for textiles, FEMB 2017 Level 3, Oeko-Tex 100 certificate, euroLATEX ECO-Standard, CertiPUR, or the alternative evidence specified in the technical specifications.

Award criteria:

The quality of the tender was assessed out of a maximum of 100 points as follows: nine sustainable development criteria (40 points), diversity of the range(s) of reference office chairs (15 points), and technical evaluation of samples provided (45 points, including ergonomic suitability, quality and aesthetic aspects of the samples of chairs). Tenderers had to achieve at least 60 points out of 100 on quality. The sustainable development award criteria were as follows:

Materials (maximum 28 points): 

  • Recycled material content (pre-consumption and postconsumption combined) (5 points): Points were awarded based on the percentage of recycled materials compared to the total weight of the chair.
  • Share of synthetic materials (5 points): Points were awarded based on the percentage of synthetic materials compared to the total weight of the chair, with lower percentages receiving more points.
  • Carbon footprint (3 points): Tenderers were asked to provide a detailed calculation of the carbon footprint of the chair in compliance with standard ISO 14067:2018, which specifies principles, requirements and guidelines for the quantification and reporting of the carbon footprint of a product, in a manner consistent with International Standards on life cycle assessment (ISO 14040 and ISO 14044).
  • Adhesives and glues (4 points): Points awarded if the VOC content in adhesives used in assembling the chairs did not exceed 10% of the weight of the adhesives.
  • Textiles (4 points): Points awarded if the textiles used to upholster the chairs did not exceed a maximum formaldehyde content of 16 mg/kg per chair.
  • Water management efficiency (3 points): Points were awarded if the manufacturing facility for the chairs had one or more programmes aimed at maximising the efficiency of process water usage to reduce the burden on water-provision systems and on local waste-water treatment systems.
  • Packaging (4 points): Half points were awarded if the packaging used to protect the chairs comprised at least 60% recycled materials (for paper or cardboard) or 40% recycled materials (for plastic). Full points were awarded if the packaging comprised at least 90% recycled materials (for paper or cardboard) or 60% (plastic).
  • Fabric manufacture (4 points): Points were awarded if the manufacturing units for the chairs have proper liquidwaste treatment systems and have arrangements in place to store and remove hazardous waste and to capture and treat gas emissions.
  • Leather manufacture (4 points): 2 points were awarded if the chemical oxygen demand of waste water from tanneries, when discharged to surface water after treatment, did not exceed 200 mg/l. 2 points were assigned if the total chromium concentration in tannery waste water after treatment did not exceed 1.0 mg/l, in accordance with Commission Implementing Decision 2013/84/EU.
  • Energy and atmosphere (2 points): 1 point was assigned to tenderers that developed, documented and implemented technologies and/or strategies to help carriers save fuel and reduce air pollution and emissions when delivering the materials and components used in assembling and/or manufacturing the chairs. 1 point was given to tenderers that developed, documented and implemented technologies and/or strategies to help carriers save fuel and reduce air pollution and emissions when distributing the chairs to the final customer.
  • Use of chairs (2 points): Points were awarded if the instruction notice attached to the chair contained specified information concerning maintenance, ergonomic usage, substances of very high concern and endof-life treatment of the chair.

For the assessment of the above criteria, tenderers had to attach to their tender any official type I ecolabel or declarations of conformity by the manufacturer or certifications by independent third-party bodies, and test reports from ISO 17025 accredited laboratories as specified in the technical specifications.

Infographic explaining the materials of a chair


Contract performance clauses:

The terms of performance of the contract set out requirements for worker protection and working conditions. The requirements imposed on the contractor are those laid down by the laws and regulations on the protection of workers and on working conditions in the countries in which they are employed. The contractor and its suppliers/subcontractors must also comply with the provisions of the eight fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), particularly where these are not incorporated into the laws and regulations of the country in which the workers are employed. The eight fundamental ILO conventions are the:

• Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention (C087, 1948);

• Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention (C098, 1949);

• Forced Labour Convention (C029, 1930); • Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (C105, 1957);

• Equal Remuneration Convention (C100, 1951);

• Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (C111, 1958); • Minimum Age Convention (C138, 1973);

• Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (C182, 1999).

Tenderers had to attach to their offers evidence of independent certification (e.g., SA 80004), or a label issued by an accredited organisation (e.g., Belgian social mark) or proof of adherence to a code of conduct such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) or the Global Compact, certifying compliance with the eight fundamental ILO conventions, on the part of the tenderer itself and for each of its suppliers/subcontractors.

Failing this, the tenderer had to produce a detailed and comprehensive solemn declaration, in which it undertakes to comply with, and ensure that its suppliers/ subcontractors comply with, the eight fundamental ILO conventions. Evidence of these commitments must be submitted to the Commission whenever a certificate expires and when changing suppliers and/ or producers. The contractor must be able to demonstrate its compliance with the ILO conventions in the course of the contract by providing, at the Commission’s request, all supporting documents showing that it has imposed upon itself and its subcontractors’ compliance with the obligations in question. It must also undertake to facilitate any checks on the manufacturing sites by a representative duly mandated by the Commission to verify such compliance.

One of the ecolabels that tenderers could produce is FEMB 2017 Level 3. It certifies three categories with specific criteria: product (materials, life-cycle, recyclability), production facility (input of material, energy effect on health), and organisation (policy, organisation process). These three categories are assessed from the point of view of materials, energy and atmosphere, and consequences on health, as well as social responsibility (health and safety of employees, company’s policy, integration of persons with disabilities, social projects).

FEMB is a European-Level certificate which certifies that environmental and social criteria are observed in the manufacture of office and contract furniture. This certificate stands out from other labels because it documents the only ISO accredited standard for “sustainable” office and contract furniture. This is also the most comprehensive sustainability standard for such furniture. The standard already covers the growing market requirements for public procurement (Green Public Procurement) and for the circular economy almost completely. The current update of the FEMB standard will reinforce this area. Thanks to the official accreditation according to ISO standards, the level certificate also has worldwide credibility. In the level certification process, the product, production location and company behaviour are checked. The assessment is based on sustainability criteria in the four areas of material, energy and atmosphere, human health and the ecosystem, and social responsibility. The certificate is awarded in three ranks, the highest level is level 3.

Compliance audits regarding worker protection and working conditions in the supply and production chain for the chairs will be carried out during the execution of the contract, following the launch of a specific tendering procedure.


The framework was awarded in December 2020. The framework value is €16 964 000 over a period of 5 years. The contracting authority received seven offers from large enterprises. Three of them represent the three leading chair manufacturers in the EU, with an annual turnover ranging from €80 million to €215 million.

The evaluation of the technical offers was based on three main aspects: the first step was the technical compliance of the samples of the office chairs with the technical specifications, then the evaluation of environmental quality and ergonomic aspects. Two tenderers failed in this technical compliance.

The successful tenderer was Interstuhl, a German family company that was set up nearly 60 years ago, that does business worldwide and has 850 employees. In the evaluation of this tender, Interstuhl fulfilled 92,5% of the environmental criteria and was the only tenderer in possession of the label FEMB 2017 Level 3. It takes 6 months for a company to get this certification, which is valid for two years, and it is an expensive process. This label includes 15 social criteria (employee health and safety management, labour and human rights, policy on social responsibility, external health and safety management standard, inclusiveness, engagement in community involvement, social responsibility reporting – basic and advanced level -, supply chain – basic and advanced level, and supplier code of conduct -, excellence in social responsibility), out of which 14 were fulfilled by Interstuhl.

Environmental impacts

By requiring social and environmental criteria which are more advanced than those commonly required, the Office for Infrastructure and Logistics of the European Commission intended to project a strong sign of its commitment towards social and environmental responsibility, hoping they can lead by example. The purchased office chairs respect all the criteria linked with the life cycle. In this tender the three most important environmental aspects were the availability in the offer of a calculation of the carbon footprint for the basic office chair, the fact that the basic office chair contains the least amount of synthetic materials, and the use of recycled materials for the components of the basic office chair.

It was the first time that Commission included these criteria in tendering procedures for similar products.

Tenderers had to provide the calculation of the carbon footprint for the basic office chair, certified by a third party. Environmental criteria were also set for the subcontractors supplying components, such as fabric and leather the treatment and tincture of which is often harmful to the environment. Interstuhl does not use many subcontractors, apart from those supplying components and for the logistics. This joint procurement has a very high cumulative effect, because of its contract value, the duration and geographical spread (44 contracting authorities across the EU and the European External Action Service).

The setting up and updating of a website embedding an ‘online catalogue’ with the administrative, legal and technical information, has made the process of placing and managing purchase orders much more effective and efficient, reducing the need of purchasing bodies to send a lot of questions and requests for information to the contractor.

Lessons learned

The contracting authority required the possession of many valid certifications, deeming specific monitoring of the environmental aspects during the execution of the contract unnecessary. If a certification expires during the execution of the contract, it can ask specific questions to the contractor or require the renewal of the certifications.

The contracting authority has drawn the following lessons:

• For a procedure of a similar value and level of complexity, it is necessary to have enough time for reflection, to gather the most objective information to be able to set ambitious criteria which can be met by the market.

• Many ecolabels exist in different countries which confuse the user and the manufacturer. Level 3 FEMB is the most advanced label. The Commission decided not to require this label on tenderers in the award criteria, as very few companies possess this certification.

• Environmental and social criteria are an evolutionary matter, which makes it important to regularly update information. It is always advisable to include criteria that can be verified in an objective manner, limit as much as possible the number of criteria whose assessment can be subject to discretion, and consult with other experts, being national public buyers or independent experts in the environmental and social fields.

• Previous experience with environmental and social criteria is useful. However, it is always necessary to adapt the criteria, namely the social ones, to the objective of the contract in a tailored way.

More information

For related information, please see the EU GPP criteria for Furniture and the Technical Background Report.

Tender documents are available online.