As a strongly export-driven market, the Malaysian Furniture Industry faces a number of challenges to remain competitive internationally, particularly in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The cost and availability of raw materials and confronting the carbon footprint of the industry as a whole are just a few of the most pressing issues.
These issues emerge within the context of a national shift toward transforming the Malaysian manufacturing industry to become more efficient and resilient, with the Industry 4.0 policy proposed by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). In addition, the world has experienced a variety of extreme weather events in the first half of 2021, and this has magnified the importance of sustainability in every facet of our lives, including in international supply chains and manufacturing processes.
Can Malaysian furniture manufacturers and suppliers adapt to the dual challenges of advancing the industry forward to remain competitive whilst transitioning towards greater sustainability in their processes and sourcing of raw materials?
Rubberwood: A sustainable and renewable resource
The Malaysian Furniture Council (MFC) has introduced initiatives to help both small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and larger furniture manufacturers address some of these issues. For example, the MFC encourages its members to source sustainable materials where possible. For decades the Malaysian furniture industry has relied on a relatively renewable and sustainable source of wood for use in furniture; the humble rubber tree. The wood harvested from this tree, after decades of supplying latex, was traditionally a waste byproduct. Malaysian furniture manufacturers were among the earliest to commercialize the wood for use in furniture in the late 1970s, and rubberwood now comprises over 80% of Malaysia’s furniture exports.
Rubberwood has also been proven to be an efficient sink for carbon, particularly in mixed agroforestry systems where rubber trees are planted amongst other crops and trees. Whilst studies of carbon sequestration in rubberwood are yet to still be fully explored, the next generation of Malaysian scientists are taking significant strides to determine rubberwood’s role in removing carbon from the atmosphere with the support of the MFC and the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC). A student at Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), Ms. Chai Lee Ting, recently won the Freezailah Forest Sustainability Award from the MTCC for developing Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) as an accurate method in quantifying and mapping the aboveground carbon (AGC) stock at rubber plantation areas. This method could be used to provide further insights into the future planning of rubber plantations and the role they play in carbon sequestration.
However, for a number of reasons, including the length of time that it takes to harvest rubberwood (20-30 years) and the impact of abnormally high rainfall and flooding, the industry cannot rely on rubberwood alone to sustain the local furniture industry. The MFC relayed concerns from its members about the availability of rubberwood to local manufacturers and producers to the national government, and the government banned the export of raw rubberwood in 2017 as a result.
Scaling up certified areas and the protection of forests in Malaysia
Malaysia is recognised as a global leader in promoting the expansion of sustainable forest management, achieving a fine balance between conservation and development. Forests are considered national treasures in Malaysia, and have been, and still are, closely linked to the socio-economic development of the country and its people. The Malaysian Timber Certification Scheme (MTCS) developed and managed by the MTCC, is the first certification scheme for tropical forests in the Asia Pacific to be endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the world’s largest forest certification system. PEFC awarded a gold medal to the MTCC for its efforts to certify almost 1 million hectares of forests under sustainable management plans in 2020 alone, the best in the world during that period. Malaysia is now home to over 5 600 000 hectares of certified forests, which remain productive for the economic development of the crucial forestry sector whilst protecting the essential natural ecosystems that exist within these forests.
Certification schemes ensure that timber and non-wood forest products derived from these areas are sourced sustainably, allowing the forests to regenerate naturally at a rate that does not deplete or degrade the forests over time. PEFC certification can also help protect water catchment areas, conserve the environment and animal and plant biodiversity living within forests, as well as improve the economy of local communities which depend on forest products as a source of their livelihoods. In line with the country’s sustainable forest management commitment, the MTCC plans to add 10 more Forest Management Units (FMUs) by 2025, potentially representing hundreds of thousands of hectares of protected forests.
Sustainability at the source: MFC’s role in reducing energy-intensive electricity generation
Electricity consumption amongst manufacturing industries in Malaysia has grown at an annual rate of 3.5-4.5% and constitutes roughly 40% of the total energy consumption of Malaysia.
The MFC, through its subsidiary EFE Sdn Bhd, has sought to address this problem at the source by promoting the use of solar power and supplying solar panels to its members in order to trim the generation of fossil-fuel-intensive electricity. The generation of electricity through solar panels is not only environmentally viable but also cost-effective. A study in August 2021 by UOB Malaysia indicates that a typical solar photovoltaic panel installation on commercial or industrial properties will potentially help businesses save 25% in electricity costs.
Cleaner air and safer for you and your family
On the manufacturing side, the MFC has actively encouraged its members to adopt the use of E1 standard particleboards in lieu of the often-used E2 standard particleboards. E1 and E2 refer to European standards for the emission of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) such as formaldehyde, particularly in the glue and adhesives of engineered wood products. VOC’s are toxic gases that are released into our homes and offices over time and are generally considered dangerous to human health, with links to cancer and other health conditions. VOC’s may also have adverse effects on the environment, as when they are released in large volumes during manufacturing, they can contribute to smog and air pollution in cities and industrial areas. According to the standards, E1 standard particleboards emit just 1/10th of the VOCs that E2 particleboards do, making E1 standard boards significantly safer for you, your family, and our air.
With the Malaysian Furniture Council actively advocating and working towards sustainability, the future of the industry looks bright even in the face of a number of challenges. The MFC will continue to work toward a resilient supply chain by introducing constructive initiatives that enhance the capacity of both small and medium-sized enterprises and larger furniture manufacturers to adapt to change, whilst remaining internationally competitive.