January 9, 2013
There is a theory that when companies talk about issues such as corporate social responsibility they are doing so because it helps them to achieve their business goals. This is the coldly rational thing to do according to people like free market guru Milton Friedman who argues that companies should not actively pursue altruistic ends unless that pursuit is ultimately in the interest of their shareholders. As Friedman puts it: ‘Hypocrisy is virtuous when it serves the bottom line. Moral virtue is immoral when it does not’.
However that does not explain why so many companies do more than they need to in order to meet their environmental obligations under law and in response to demands from customers. When it comes to office furniture, many manufacturers are develop a more sophisticated approach than meeting the most basic environmental requirements buyers must also look beyond headline claims about products at the selection process.
Take the oft heard claim that a task chair is 95 or more recyclable for example. That may be true, but it may not address the performance of supposedly environmentally unfriendly materials which may actually be more durable and so better for the environment over the whole life of the product. Nor does it address the practical issue of how the various recyclable materials in the chair – metal, plastic, foam, fabric – can be disassembled, replaced and recycled. The design of the chair is one thing, the management of it during its life cycle entirely another. A well-developed brief will allow for this extra level of complexity.
Some products may be used over again, recycled as a finished item. For example the Aeron Chair from Herman Miller is not only a design classic which has been in constant demand for nearly twenty years, it is also made from 94 per cent recyclable materials. In many cases unwanted Aerons are not recycled but given a new lease of life.
Herman Miller has an enlightened approach that embraces all of its products. The firm’s Design for the Environment (DfE) team ensures that each product meets environmentally sensitive design standards to by applying the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol which ensures that the most environmentally friendly materials are used in the initial manufacture and that the design and materials used allow as much of the product as possible to be recycled easily at the end of its life.
One of the best examples is the SAYL chair from Herman Miller which is constructed from plastic, steel, foam, and fabric, ten per cent of which are recycled and 93 percent of which are recyclable at the end of the chair’s useful life.
Some manufacturers are accredited to sophisticated environmental criteria. For example RH Chairs, one of Europe’s largest and most progressive designers and manufacturers of office seating not only was one of the first manufacturers to achieve certification in accordance with the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) system. EPD is a global system aimed at meeting the growing demand from customers for better environmental information along with more and more sophisticated and stringent green certifications.
The International EPD system was launched in 2008 as a revision of other EPD systems that had been in place for almost a decade across a large number of countries. RH were granted the certification following extensive independent verification by a third party verifier focusing on published research and data, plus other factors such as resource use, global warming potential and generation of waste. The EPD system aims to provide buyers with easily accessible, factual, comparable and verifiable information about the environmental performance of products and services.
RH claims that its designs offer some of the most advanced environmental performance characteristics of any seating manufacturer. It designs and manufactures according to 5 core principles of sustainability which are that its chair designs should be low weight, have few components, use good materials (including both recycled raw materials and recyclable components), have a long lifetime (with a ten year guarantee) and exhibit cradle to cradle thinking. Its Logic 400 range is certified according to both the EPD as well as the GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Certification programme for low emitting products.
A similar approach is adopted by Humanscale. Whenever possible, Humanscale claims it uses 100 percent recycled aluminium, has set an objective of customers being able to recycle all of the solid parts of a chair at the end of its lifecycle. Its famous Liberty chair, for example, is made predominantly from aluminium, plastics and steel with 54 per cent recycled content at the point of manufacture and 93 per cent recyclable components and has been designed to be easy to disassemble and sort componentry to make recycling easy.
Knoll is another world class manufacturer that applies world class environmental standards to its products. The Generation range has been developed using Knoll’s own Design for the Environment Guidelines, which means that the chair’s construction optimises material efficiency, reduces the amount of energy and material used in assembly and minimizes manufacturing waste. Generation has also undergone a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a that evaluates the environmental attributes of a product throughout its total life.
Knoll claims that Generation is the first product in the furniture industry to be accredited as Sustainable Platinum according to the SMaRT Sustainable Product Standard which measures a product’s environmental, economic and social benefits over its whole life cycle from raw materials extraction through to repair, re-use or recycling.
Getting the right information is important when specifying materials. Some suppliers such as screen manufacturer Icon offer materials with inherently exceptional environmental credentials such as Hemp fabrics from Camira. But the choice of material can also depend on the application. While using wood from renewable resources is a no-brainer, the choice of whether to use chrome in metal components, for examples, offers a more complex choice. Staverton is one furniture manufacturer that consults closely with clients to help them make the right decision about finishes on the basis that chrome may be more durable and provide a better environmental choice over the lifecycle of a product.
Longevity is also enhanced when the product is supplied with a replacement programme or with a design that allows specific components – such as seat pads and fabrics to be replaced. Icon for example has a range of screens with zippable upholstery for easy repair and replacement.
Some firms have made a business of reusing and repairing office furniture. One of these is the London Re-use Network (LRN), which is made up of a wide range of commercial and charitable partners. The organisation clears unwanted office furniture, then reconditions it to offer to small businesses, charities, community and educational groups and even provides a full audit trail – so it knows exactly what been removed from each office, how much has gone for re-use and how much for recycling.
But all products age over time, and many of them may wear in ways that customers do not mind or even prefer. Provided that wear and tear occurs in the right ways and the right time, they can give the product an air of maturity. This is often the case with leather, wood and certain types of metal that develop an attractive patina.
What each of these examples prove is how the complex issue of how to specify environmentally friendly office furniture can be resolved by taking a sophisticated approach that means not only understanding what each customer wants from the products but also an awareness of the many innovative and enlightened products and firms with whom they can work.