Milan furniture fair takes sustainability focus to another level. ITTO European Market Report 30th April 2023

After several years of disruption during and in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, this year the Milan Salone del Mobile furniture fair returned to its traditional April slot for the first time since 2019. Although visitor numbers were still down on pre-pandemic figures of around 400,000 in 2018 and 2019, at 307,418 they were 15% more than in 2022.

During the pandemic, overseas visitors to the fair fell dramatically. However, the continuing influence of the show in the global furniture sector was once again apparent from the numbers this year. Fully 65% of visitors came from 180 countries outside Italy. There were 2000 exhibiting brands of which 34% came from 37 different countries. There were 550 young designers exhibiting at the show from 31 countries. Also present were 28 design schools and universities from 18 countries. Over 5,400 accredited journalists attended, 47% of whom came from abroad. China formed the largest contingent of visitors to the show after Italy, followed by Germany, France, the United States, and Spain. Visitors from Brazil and India were prominent amongst tropical furniture supplying countries.

One lasting effect of the pandemic has been to encourage an even bigger focus on the show’s digital presence to further expand its influence on global furniture design trends. The international design community responded enthusiastically to the show’s social media which reached 30 million users, notched up 6 million video views, and around 80 million page impressions. There were around a million visitors to the show’s website site and more than 7 million page views. The show’s mobile app registered more than 350,000 sessions during the fair and enabled more than 750,000 scans through the matchmaking service supporting the visitor experience and promoting effective interface with the exhibitors.

Sustainable furniture design has been a key theme of past Milan shows. However, the extent to which this theme pervaded the show was taken to another level this year. Reuse, regeneration, circularity, sustainable materials, and innovative energy saving and efficient production methods were at the very heart of the event. This extended not only to the products and processes on display, but also to the exhibition stands. As the event organisers observed “Goodbye to monumental stands with a short life cycle. The new installations are lightweight, modular and reusable, made from wood and recycled cardboard”.

The heightened focus on sustainability at the Milan show reflects the considerable policy and public concern for climate change that now pervades society nearly everywhere. In Europe, the need for furniture designers, manufacturers and traders to adapt has been given added impetus by a whole raft of new regulations now passing through the EU law-making process as part of the European Green Deal (see sections on new EU regulations below).

While the organisers of the Salone del Mobile and many exhibitors were keen to emphasise the sustainability message, some commentators were more cynical. An article in the London Times conceded that “this was the year that designers acknowledged that flying to Milan and launching annual collections was not optimal, environment-wise” but went on to suggest that “Milan’s annual design week was beamed to us from the future but, this being Milan, it was more of an arty, cinematic sci-fi future than one where design experts had fathomed how to house, feed and furnish the world with zero carbon emissions”.

Nevertheless, some exhibitors communicated powerful messages about the challenges and opportunities to furniture manufacturers and their suppliers of tackling environmental issues head on. This was true of the ‘Wood You Believe?’ installation for the Italian wood panels company Gruppo Saviola by designers Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) and Italo Rota. The exhibit transformed four tons of post-consumer wooden objects into a structure that questions how design can act to reduce waste and at the same time be inspired by it. “The use-and-dispose consumption pattern is one of the main underlying causes of the environmental problems we are facing now,” says Carlo Ratti, “Wood You Believe? taps into an enormous pool of resources that have always been available to us.” Passing into the structure, visitors enter a space constructed out of more than one hundred panels from the Gruppo Saviola ‘pannello ecologico’ technology. Made of fully recycled wood, these panels are digitally treated to display a wide range of textured finishes that complement different designs. Gruppo Saviola manages the whole process from the collection of waste wood, to recycling, and transformation into a new and functional product.

Other exhibitors were willing and able to spell out a strategic vision for furniture companies to move towards more sustainable practices. In an interview with the Salone show organisers, Anna Pellizzari, Executive Director of Materially, a company that helps other companies innovate their products starting from materials, summarised the various strategies now being adopted by Italian companies. Materially is a partner of FLA-PLUS, a project led by the Italian wood furniture industry association FederlegnoArredo ( to develop and implement a strategic plan on sustainability to support and respond pragmatically to the needs of manufacturing companies.

Ms. Pellizzari noted that “with respect to sustainability, one of the central points of the wood-furniture sector – in my opinion already very virtuous because of the type of materials it uses – is the durability of the product. The Italian supply chain in particular is focused on durable products that the consumer can use for a very long time, so contributing positively to reducing the environmental impact of an object”.

Ms. Pellizzari went on to identify three approaches to circularity that can be adopted by furniture and wood product manufacturers:

  1. Design for disassembling, “a principle that, from the early stages, guides the design of objects that are easily dismantled: eliminating glues and adhesives, using joints and adopting all the solutions that allow easy replacement and repair of the components, so lengthening the product’s lifespan. This also simplifies end-of-life disassembly, which facilitates recycling”.
  2. ‘Systemic’ design involving detailed measurement of the company’s environmental impacts, developing actions dealing with the production process as a whole and identifying hotspots of environmental harm and tailored mitigation measures. These might include the use of renewable energies, increasing energy efficiency of processes, the elimination of pollutants, and much else.
  3. The approach centered on recycling and closing the circle of the material. According to Ms. Pellizzari this “is a supply chain approach encompassing the whole world of recycled panels, and includes the main Italian players in the sector. These absorb the waste from the wood supply chain and recycle it to make panels to be reintroduced into the production cycle”.

World furniture trade stagnates in 2022

The latest issue of the World Furniture magazine (freely available at from CSIL, the Italian furniture research organisation, provides a lot of information on recent trends in the global furniture sector and links to more detailed reports (available for a fee). Highlights include:

  • CSIL’s update on the world furniture outlook which notes that “after the 2020 stall, 2021 was a year of very strong growth [for global furniture trade], reaching US$ 189 billion. The uncertainties caused by the war in Ukraine, the supply chain constraints, logistics problems, and strong inflationary pressures, together with the devaluation of major currencies in relation to the US$, are countervailing factors that resulted in a stagnation in 2022”.
  • CSIL’s ‘World Furniture Outlook’ report identifies the leading importers of furniture in 2022 as the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Netherlands (a trading hub) which together accounted for about one half of total imports. Preliminary CSIL data for 2022 show a substantial increase in imports into the US and virtual stagnation for European countries (in current US$) (see chart below).

  • CSIL’s ‘World Furniture Outlook’ report notes that China, the main furniture producing and exporting country, alone accounted for more than one third of world furniture production and of exports in 2022, followed at a distance by Vietnam, Poland, Italy and Germany. After a major increase in 2021, China’s exports decreased in 2022 (see chart below) mostly as a consequence of continuing production difficulties caused by COVID. China’s struggling real estate sector also contributed an economic slowdown in China last year, impacting on Chinese furniture production and consumption, and on global supply chains and trade, given China’s large role in the furniture industry.

  • CSIL’s ‘World Furniture Outlook’ report suggests that global prospects will result in a declining consumer confidence and in the weakening of furniture demand during 2023. For the world as a whole (100 countries), CSIL forecast furniture consumption to decrease slightly in real terms in 2023 but that growth should resume in 2024.
  • An article by Mindaugas Morkunas, Regional Sales Head of the German company Henkel on “current trends in the European furniture supply chain and the influences behind them” observes that “currently, the furniture industry is still exposed to significant uncertainty” and that “having recently travelled around multiple furniture factories, I have seen manufacturers in countries like Poland and Sweden suffering from decreased demand. The decrease is drastic…. Some major manufacturers admit having never faced such a fall. The numbers vary, but I have personally been told that certain orders have been reduced by 43%, 50% or even 73%”.
  • Mr Morkunas notes that companies are adapting to the changed market situation by: a “focus on product improvement….to maximize lean manufacturing. This means minimizing unnecessary expenses while retaining product quality”; “energy saving” since “highly increased energy prices are forcing manufacturers to look for ways to save on energy….popular methods include performing professional audits on energy consumption, using state aid, regular unit maintenance, and so on”; and “changes in people management….Many employees are being laid off or sent on holiday for a week or even a month. It comes as no surprise that the furniture industry has faced multiple protests from dissatisfied employees”.
  • CSIL’s latest report on the “200 largest furniture companies worldwide” shows that this group of companies has turnover of nearly USD 120 billion related specifically to the furniture sector. Concentration in the global furniture sector continues to increase year-on-year, the top 200 accounting for more than 20% of world furniture production in 2022. The Top 200 have headquarters in 30 countries, with companies in Asia and the Pacific accounting for nearly 40% of Top 200 turnover and European and Americas companies accounting for 30% each.
  • According to CSIL, since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the Top 200 have consistently outperformed the global furniture sector as a whole driven by larger financial capabilities that allowed leading companies to quickly re-align business strategies, implement new sales channels (e.g. online), and reposition their supply chain. Large Asian manufacturers have grown particularly rapidly over the last five years. European players have also shown promising results, particularly in 2021 (surpassing the pre-pandemic level). North American manufacturers experienced significant development in 2019 and stabilized in 2021.
  • CSIL note that the strategies of the Top 200 have evolved in recent years with a growing focus on “delocalization”, that is expanding activities outside the companies headquarters country to reduce logistical and transport costs and the time-to-market. About half of the Top 200 companies now have manufacturing activities outside their headquarters country. Companies specializing in outdoor furniture have been particularly prone to delocalize production (80% of the companies selected opened manufacturing plants abroad), followed by companies specializing in office furniture and upholstered furniture manufacturing.
  • CSIL latest report on ecommerce in the global furniture sector shows this route to market has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2022 the global value of furniture sold online was worth about USD 96 billion, representing about 11% of the worldwide furniture consumption at end-user prices. While global consumption of furniture decreased on average by 3% each year between 2019 and 2022, e-commerce consumption increased by 18% on average each year during the same period. Most of the growth was concentrated in 2020 and 2021, while in 2022 the trend was broadly flat.
  • CSIL note that the market for online furniture is a highly competitive and rapidly changing one. An overarching trend is a move by retailers towards an “omnichannel strategy”. Consumers “expect a seamless experience that is joined up between physical stores, online, or phone, and where they can switch among channels easily”. This has re-written the rules of traditional retailing. According to CSIL “a retailer’s success no longer depends on its ability to provide many products. It no longer depends on offering promotions. And the number of stores is less relevant now….brick-and-mortar retailers are establishing a strong online presence. But, at the same time, we are seeing e-commerce platforms moving towards brick-and-mortar”.

CSIL’s free magazine and all CSIL reports can be purchased online and downloaded from:

Raft of EU Green Deal measures set to impact on furniture sector

A raft of EU regulatory measures designed to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts are set to have a significant impact on Europe’s furniture sector. The high political priority attached to such measures as the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR), and the EU-single use Plastics Directive is due to EU-wide commitment to the European Green Deal. This aims to make the EU’s climate, energy, transport and taxation policies fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and to achieve zero net emissions by 2050.

A large proportion of the EU’s long-term budget and NextGenerationEU, the temporary instrument designed to boost the post-COVID recovery, which together form the largest stimulus package ever financed in Europe, are tied to Green Deal initiatives. One measure now starting to impact on the wood products sector, including furniture, is designed to directly raise funds for the Green Deal. Since January 1st, 2021, every EU member state has had to pay a plastic tax of 80 cents per kilogram of non-recycled plastic waste. Due to that, some EU countries are now introducing their own plastic taxes which impose new requirements on all product suppliers to provide data on the quantity of plastic packaging with each consignment before it can be placed on the market.

The EUDR, reported on in the previous Tropical Timber Market Report, was passed by the European Parliament in a vote on 19 April and looks set to have a particularly immediate effect on the trade in wood furniture. The text now just needs to be formally endorsed by the European Council, expected in May. It will then be published in the EU Official Journal and enter into force 20 days later. The requirements are estimated to be enforced for large operators from 18 months after the law enters into force (i.e. from around December 2014) and twelve months later (i.e. from around December 2015) for SMEs.

The EUDR will likely have a major impact on supply of some materials to the furniture sector – including wood, textiles and leather. It will also impact significantly on manufacturers of wood furniture both inside and outside the EU. Under the terms of EUDR, both importers and exporters of wood furniture in the EU – together with large operators even if only engaged in internal EU trade – will be obliged to gather and provide geolocation data for all the harvest sites from which all wood components have been derived with each individual consignment before it can be placed on, or exported from, the EU market. This applies to all wood furniture including items such as wood seating not formerly covered by EUTR. The same applies to wood-based textile fibres and to leathers derived from cattle contained in furniture products.

The geolocation requirement will apply irrespective of risk of illegal harvest, deforestation, or forest degradation in the region of supply. Furthermore, if regulated material components of furniture products derive from harvest sites in any country or region except those identified by the EC as “low risk”, these operators will be obliged to undertake due diligence to identify and mitigate these risks.

Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR)

In the absence of other factors, a far-reaching regulation such as EUDR would likely lead more manufacturers to switch away from wood and increase their use of other materials such as plastics and metals. However, this tendency should be offset by the ESPR which aims, according to the EC, to “make sustainable products the norm in the EU by increasing their durability, reusability, repairability, recyclability and energy efficiency”. Wood products are inherently well adapted to delivering against most of these goals.

Presented as a proposal by the European Commission on 30th March 2022, the ESPR is currently working its way through the legislative process and, if adopted by the EU, will set out a general framework imposing ecodesign requirements on products intended for sale on EU markets. The proposal builds on the existing Ecodesign Directive which currently only covers energy-related products.

The process towards passage of the ESPR is currently some way behind the EUDR. The Commission’s proposal for the ESPR was discussed by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee on 12 January 2023 when MEPs tabled 628 amendments. The vote in the committee is now expected on 5 June 2023. Beyond that the law will need to be agreed by both the full Parliament and the European Council.

The ESPR proposal establishes a framework to set ecodesign requirements for specific product groups to significantly improve their circularity, energy performance and other environmental sustainability aspects. It will enable the setting of performance and information requirements for almost all categories of physical goods placed on the EU market including furniture. Any organisation placing goods for sale on the European market, whether or not they are based within Europe, will be required to comply with the requirements of the regulation. Furniture products, alongside various other product groups such as iron, steel, aluminium, textiles, and cement have been identified as priority products for the establishment of eco-design requirements.

The ESPR framework will allow for the setting of a wide range of requirements, including on

  • product durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability;
  • presence of substances that inhibit circularity;
  • energy and resource efficiency;
  • recycled content;
  • remanufacturing and recycling;
  • carbon and environmental footprints;
  • information requirements, including a Digital Product Passport.

The new “Digital Product Passport” will provide information about products’ environmental sustainability. It should help consumers and businesses make informed choices when purchasing products, facilitate repairs and recycling and improve transparency about products’ life cycle impacts on the environment. The product passport should also help public authorities to better perform checks and controls.

The specific requirements to be imposed on different product groups are not yet clear. The EU’s approach has been to start with a big picture proposal for a framework and a process — via which the Commission (“working in close cooperation with all those concerned”) will gradually set out requirements for each product or group of products, developing specific stipulations down the line.

This approach also suggests there could end up being a degree of variability in ESPR requirements across different types of products, as various trade-offs (perhaps product longevity vs energy efficiency of manufacture, say) are weighed up and variously assessed in each specific product context.

EU taxes on plastic packaging

While there is still some way to go before the ESPR requirements will be imposed in the EU market, the EU’s decision to require all EU Member States to make a national contribution to the EU budget in support of the Green Deal based on the amount of plastic packaging waste that is not recycled within their territory, is already being felt in some countries. The mechanisms by which Member States raise the money to pay this EU-wide levy are not harmonised. Each Member State designs its own regulation to capture the underlying taxes and contributions from market players and industries.

Spain has moved faster than other EU countries to implement specific legislation to implement a tax at national level to fund the EU levy. Starting on 1 January this year, Spain began enforcement of a new tax (referred to as IEPNR) on “non-reusable plastic packaging”. The tax applies throughout Spain, including Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands, and taxes both the import and manufacture of non-reusable plastic in the country.

The definition of “packaging” taxed under the Spanish law includes not only that used directly for selling products but also packaging required in transport. Items such as plastic straps around packs of lumber or shrink wrapped plastics to protect veneer, flooring and furniture are therefore subject to the tax. The IEPNR applies the rate of €0.45 per kilogram of plastic in packaging.

Recycled plastics are not subject to the tax. However, to avoid paying the tax, the importer must demonstrate that plastics are certified by an ISO 17065 accredited Certification Body as containing only recycled material in accordance with UNE EN 15343:2008. This is the European standard for “plastics recycling traceability and assessment of conformity and recycled content”. At present, there is no clear information on how widely this standard is applied by plastic packaging suppliers, but it is understood to be not widespread. In practice therefore, as things stand, most Spanish importers are likely to be obliged to pay the tax.

While Spanish manufacturers and traders operating in the EU single market have to self-assess and pay the tax in the same periods (monthly or quarterly) as their VAT self-assessment, Spanish importers are required to settle the tax through the Single Administrative Document (SAD) used for customs declarations. The taxable amount of non-recycled plastic in kg (to two decimal places) is required to be entered into box 47 of the SAD.

Further details on customs formalities for importing goods subject to the tax are provided by the Spanish government at:

Some other EU Member States are expected soon to adopt a similar approach. In fact Italy planned to introduce a very similar tax – known as MACSI – from 1st January 2023, but a decision was taken in November last year to suspend application until further notice. While the tax was not imposed, since the start of this year all suppliers placing packaged product on the Italian market must indicate material type using an alphanumeric code (which is defined in EC Decision 97/129/EC). The code may be provided on the packaging itself or, if this is not possible, it should be available via the website or similar documentation of the supplier.

Elsewhere, Poland, Germany, and Sweden have already announced that they will implement new plastic-related legislation soon. Other EU countries may adopt a different approach, for example by imposing so-called “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) fees and obligations on manufacturing companies, or developing new deposit-return systems. Some EU countries may go so far as to completely ban single-use plastics.

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