Can a local wood furniture brand really go green?


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Sep 03, 2023

Can a local wood furniture brand really go green?

Her children played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ms Jamie Lim’s approach

Her children played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ms Jamie Lim's approach as the second-generation owner of local furniture maker Scanteak.

Two incidents, in particular, left an impression, leading to lasting change. One had to do with safety; the other, sustainability.

Several years ago, the "affordable and cute" wooden trains she had bought for her three young children to play with led to an outbreak of rashes.

"My kids don't have sensitive skin," she says. "So I looked at the toys, smelled the wood, and thought: it must be really cheap quality and there must be something added that's causing the rashes."

Ms Lim suspected formaldehyde, a chemical present in glue and paint. It is harmful to health and is a common indoor air pollutant.

"That was when I realised our products shouldn't put families through a similar experience, just because of cost."

Formaldehyde-based adhesives, with their strong bonding properties, are often used in the production of wood composites such as plywood and particle board. While cheap and versatile, wood composites have inferior characteristics compared with solid wood.

At the time, Ms Lim and her brother Julian – who is executive director of Scanteak's Taiwan outfit, Scan-D Corporation – were evaluating whether to adhere to stringent overseas formaldehyde standards for Scanteak's 500-odd products. Singapore currently does not regulate formaldehyde emissions.

Would customers appreciate the change? Or would they be turned off by the resulting price hike? New and safer manufacturing processes would raise costs by 10 to 15 per cent.

Concerns over safety prompted Ms Lim to see it as a matter of principle. "Kids drop and pick food off our tables. Pet dogs lick the legs. We feel morally responsible to our customers," she says.

"So we complied with our own ethics, did our calculations and compromised on our margins."

A second incident that led the siblings, now in their 40s, to add sustainability to safety occurred at a beach outing in 2019.

The adults had walked some way before they realised the kids were lagging behind. The little ones were eventually found frowning over the litter along the shoreline.

"It felt good to know that if they were to carry on the business, they would care about the state of the Earth," Ms Lim says.

"That was when we knew sustainability was important to our legacy. When you become a parent, you begin to care about the future beyond your retirement.

"I told myself: we have to create a better world for the kids."

But can sustainability be compatible with a business based on the felling of trees and possibly decimating the forest?

For Ms Lim, one answer comes from Scanteak's namesake teak, which is harvested from trees native to South-east Asia. This coveted, pricey timber is among the most dense and durable wood types, allowing furniture to last for decades.

This gives teak products an edge over less durable or biodegradable options, such as plastic and metal, she adds.

Scanteak's wood is sourced from mills in Indonesia that adhere to Sistem Verifikasi dan Legalitas Kayu, or SVLK, a certification that requires suppliers to fell an ethical number of trees from legal plantations.

Enforcing this "painful" requirement in 2016 cost Ms Lim many long-time suppliers first engaged by her father Mr Lim Pok Chin, when he set up the business in 1988 as a spin-off of his furniture distribution firm, Hawaii Furnishings.

But she saw the certification process as necessary to prepare for global expansion to the West, where sustainability requirements are stringent.

The Scanteak Group boasts a network of over 180 stores globally, with Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan being its largest markets.

"Sometimes malls and landlords will ask: ‘How sustainable are you?’ because it's part of their business proposition," Ms Lim says.

"Now, when we want to enter a new market, or (when) a business partner approaches us, we do not need to worry that our products are not compliant."

The Lims went further. In 2018, following a visit to a supplier's timber factory, they saw workers using chalk to draw outlines on teak planks for dining tables. Further along were the cut pieces, laid to one side, and the remainder in a pile to be thrown away.

"When we saw these offcuts, we began asking: what else can we do with the wood?" Ms Lim recounts. This led the brand to design and sell smaller products, such as chopping boards, trays, bowls and keyholders.

The final bits and bobs of wood are not tossed, but shaved into sawdust and given to local smoked tofu makers for cooking.

Scanteak even found a way to join wood offcuts to create larger items, such as writing tables and chairs. This includes Ms Lim's favourite piece: a one-seater sofa with slim legs from the brand's award-winning Prologue collection, which was a collaboration between Scanteak and local design firm Outofstock.

On cost pressures, she says: "It has to be a calculated approach." She adds that a 10 per cent cost increase can be defrayed with economies of scale by bringing better products to customers in more markets.

At the end of the day, she adds, it goes back to building a long-lasting business. "When it comes to sustainability, if you just look at dollars and cents, it doesn't make sense.

"However, I believe that the costs must be relevant and sustainable to the organisation in the long run. Here, our plan is to go bigger, go global and to put our best foot forward for the environment.

"The cost is not a short-term cost. We are hoping to build a business that can go on for generations," she says, no doubt with her children in mind.

Small businesses stand to benefit by embracing sustainability, says UOB's Business Outlook Study 2023.

Conducted between December and January, UOB surveyed 823 companies in Singapore to gather sentiments on adopting sustainability practices. Here are some key findings.

Minimising throwaway wood might be a worthy cause, but this approach resulted in major production issues for Scanteak.

"The biggest headache is procurement," says Ms Jamie Lim. "For example, from one log, I can probably make two dining tables, five stools, and 20 key holders. Those ratios can cause wastage of stock, so we have to plan production and promotions carefully, because the season for stools may not be the season for dining tables, or the season for keyholders."

This year, the company is working on an artificial intelligence platform that will forecast demand and supply, advising procurement staff on the optimal ratio of small and large-sized items to order.

It calculates this based on historic buying trends, and factors such as weather, container load, and different lead times across the brand's 20 to 30 suppliers.

Based on employees’ procurement decisions, the platform will then suggest optimal timings and price points to run marketing promotions, and minimise wasted stocks.

Building Sustainable Cities is a series sharing insights on how individuals and businesses can take action to forge a cleaner, greener tomorrow.

This is the second of a five-part series in partnership with

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