Interview - Thomas Palfreyman, chairman, European Federation of Interior Landscape Groups

The European Federation of Interior Landscape Groups (EFIG) is 10 years old this year. The group, which represents 60 businesses operating in the £75m-a-year interior landscaping sector, promotes the health benefits of indoor planting in the workplace and is lobbying Government and building councils to make indoor planting more widespread to help reduce absenteeism.

Thomas Palfreyman, chairman, European Federation of Interior Landscape Groups - image: HW
Thomas Palfreyman, chairman, European Federation of Interior Landscape Groups - image: HW

Q: Why did you write to David Cameron about absenteeism?

A: Because of the importance of improving air quality and productivity. Cameron wrote an article about reducing sick-note culture earlier this year and I wrote to him saying that we need to meet because EFIG can make a huge difference. He wrote back suggesting we took it up with Iain Duncan Smith at the Department of Work & Pensions. I wrote to him and he has passed it on to the relevant people.

Q: What would you advise the civil servants involved?

A: I'd tell them that they need to stop sending mixed messages. There's a lot of flak in the press about pot plants and paperclips and it's unfounded and wrong. By reducing absenteeism by one per cent we can have a cost-neutral system because of the cost savings by the business from a human resources point of view. The evidence is that we can reduce absenteeism by 30 per cent.

Q: Why do the media single out plants in stories about Government extravagance?

A: They are seen as a luxury, even though humans evolved to live outside. Few of us spend much of the day outside, but we can bring the outside in. People are stressed and burning out and with the cost of treating them on the NHS it is surely it is better to prevent illnesses in the first place.

Q: Is the data strong enough for these health claims?

A: There's always more to be done, but the data now is accurate and substantial in several ways. There's Wolverton in the 1990s, Margaret Burchett from Australia, Andrew Smith in Scotland - findings are repeated and repeated and repeated. It is fact, but nobody seems to listen.

Q: Who else are you working with to spread the message?

A: The BRE Environmental Assessment Method is considering plants as a part of its new standard. The Green Building Council has become a member of EFIG because we need to promote buildings being green. There are lots of energy savings associated with having plants in the office, such as having fewer radical fluctuations in temperature.

Q: What other benefits come from having office plants?

A: They remove volatile organic compounds. There are about 130 more toxins in our bodies than there were in our grandparents' bodies.

Q: Where do you source plants from and why are so few British-grown?

A: We always like to buy British if we can, but unfortunately the variety or quality isn't there for the volumes we use. Plants are from Holland and Denmark mostly. There's not much grown here except cyclamen, poinsettia and external bedding.

Q: What does the future hold for EFIG?

A: For the membership to continue to grow and to raise awareness for the industry. We are launching a training and accreditation programme to raise standards. We need to keep giving out as much information as we can.

Q: How did the Landscape show in April at Olympia go?

A: Really well. We had better footfall than anticipated. Urban Planters got some good leads and we have potential new members for EFIG. The show is scheduled for next year.

Q: What are EFIG's membership numbers?

A: Almost 60. We'd like more than 100 within the next year.

Q: What is your background at Urban Planters?

A: Fifteen years ago I bought into it as a franchisee when it was a juvenile network. I completed a management buyout six years ago and have developed the network and expanded it with more franchisees and national accounts.

We opened our first international franchise in Madrid last year and it's going well. We have 19 franchisees and 28 territories. We've grown in the recession. The industry is worth £75m a year in the UK and we're the largest independent.

Q: What big-name companies do you work for?

A: Eversheds, Chiquitos, HSBC, Canary Wharf Tower and IHG.

Q: What styles and plants are in fashion?

A: Monochrome, simple, clean and natural. Quality. Branched species to give maximum respiration rates. Dracena, palms. We have a "right plant, right place" policy.

CV

1992-95: HND in horticulture, specialising in interior landscaping and design, Askham Bryan College

1996: Franchisee, Urban Planters, Derbyshire

1997: Franchisee then area manager, Urban Planters, Nottinghamshire

2005: Led management buyout of Urban Planters

2009: to date Chairman, EFIG.


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