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SPECIAL REPORT

Payback time comes quickly for Westbridge

 

The Furnishing Report travelled to North Wales earlier this Autumn to see how Marks & Spencer's main upholstery supplier has turned itself into one of Britain's greenest furniture firms......

 

10th December 2009 | manufacturing | Think back 18 months and the media were obsessed not with sub-prime lending and quantitative easing but with carbon footprints and climate change. Understandably, a deep recession in the UK has focussed more minds on short term survival than long term planning for our environmental welfare, and though such thoughts have been temporarily parked by many - the end of 2009 marks the halfway point in a five year plan for North Wales furniture manufacturer Westbridge Designs to become a carbon neutral business.

 

Like any other UK furniture business, Westbridge is a far from recession proof organisation, but an early Autumn tour of its Flintshire manufacturing plant shows how far the company has come on its journey to achieve its stated goal by 2012, and how high up the business agenda the firm's environmental footprint remains.

 

Westbridge, a £50m sofa manufacturer owned by the Belfield Furnishings Group, is a major and long standing supplier to high street giant Marks & Spencer. The Westbridge site is one of M&S' four 'green factories' in which it works with its suppliers as part of its Plan A initiative to use around half the energy and less than half the water required by traditional factories.

 

Phase 1 of that plan is now over, following the completion of  capital spend on energy projects, and phases two, monitoring and sharing, and three, hosting supplier visits, are well under way.

 

Westbridge as it is today is a relatively new business, set up by Belfield in October 2004 to supply white label upholstery to UK retailers. Less than a year later it was integrated with the Deeside Furniture business acquired by Belfield from the Christie-Tyler group, quickly establishing itself as one of the UK's largest sofa manufacturers and a key supplier today to the 60 or so Marks & Spencer stores that carry furniture.

 

Now it can perhaps also lay claim to being the greenest factory in the UK furniture industry, as well a key driver for change to other firms that have seen the benefits of Westbridge's labours. Before visiting the plant, we mistakenly believed the capital spend at the eco-factory would have centred on industrial processes specific to the upholstery manufacturing sector.

 

However, the reality is the changes Westbridge have implemented could be emulated by just about any other business in the UK furniture industry, whether they manufacture, import, or retail, and the net result will be not just a greener organisation, but a significantly lower cost base to boot.

 

Westbridge has invested some £230,700 so far, but it believes its annual cost saving for that spend is £70,987 - meaning payback will come in just three and a quarter years. A significant amount of the money spent has been on lighting and lighting control - the latter meaning the power to switch lights on and off has been taken away from employees, with sensors detecting movement and activating (and importantly deactivating) lights as and when they are needed.

 

A Carbon Trust audit at the beginning of the project allowed Westbridge to identify quick wins, among which was the replacing of all lighting in the factory with energy efficient bulbs, and the installation of sun tubes. These are hard to describe without being able to see them, but if you imagine a hole being cut in the roof and giant tubes (perhaps a metre in diameter) being inserted into the gap left by the hole and then reaching all the way down to about eight feet from the floor.

 

The installation of several of these within a range of rooms - some of which do not have external windows - means natural light pervades areas of the building that could otherwise only be lit by artificial power sources. Their effectiveness is dictated by the time of day and the general weather conditions outside, but even when the Furnishing Report visited, ample light was gleaned from what was a rather dull and overcast north Wales morning.

 

State of the art hand dryers have been installed in bathrooms, saving about 1.5 tonnes of paper towels annually, according to Westbridge, as well as producing 80% less energy than older less efficient models, while hot water in the factory is powered by solar energy using a closed loop system with water going into a tank and being heated completely self sufficiently. This cost £30,000 to install and the firm expects it to have paid for itself in cost savings within five years.

 

The company now uses far less water thanks to the installation of adjustable taps, that mix air into the water system to dilute the quantity of water dispensed, while timers placed on staff vending machines mean the boiler isn't fired up to heat or chill hot or cold drinks 24 hours a day, instead using no energy when the factory is empty at night.

 

Waste reduction has also been a chief aim. Within a year, fourth fifths of the company's waste output was being recycled, after partnering with a local specialist, called Storm Recycling, which enters the Westbridge site to separate and dispose of waste products. Any landfill charges are paid for by Storm, so it too is given an additional incentive to cut waste.

 

The company has also taken action on returns - with products it can't resell now being donated to charities, such as Save the Family, an organisation helping homeless families stay together, and the Maxie Richards Foundation, a charity supporting people affected by substance addiction.

 

Westbridge has also looked at its supply chain, bringing down the number of products and components that are air freighted in to 7% from its prior 50%, and working with suppliers to reduce both in and outbound packaging by eliminating materials such as polystyrene, and instead just using cardboard. One of the firm's suppliers, a Belgian fabric house, has even installed 1,800 sq m of solar panels to power a third of its energy after being inspired by the changes Westbridge has made, and others M&S furniture suppliers, including those who toured the factory alongside the Furnishing Report, are likely to follow suit.

 

The net gain of Westbridge's efforts so far has been, in environmental terms, an annual saving of 580 tonnes of CO2, which is the equivalent of the energy used in 97 UK households, but in financial terms the payback on capital spend is fast approaching and the company will enjoy a vastly reduced energy cost base in subsequent years. Couple that with the marketing potential of being able to promote a green business and the argument for change becomes very strong indeed.

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