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Herman Miller Ups the Sustainable Ante with Design for Environment 2.0

When Herman Miller engineers began using Cradle to Cradle thinking as part of their Design for Environment (DfE) process in 2001, the world of green design was less complicated than today. All they had to worry about was designing products with chemistry-friendly materials, recycled content, easy disassembly and recyclability. The better they engineered products on all four counts, the better they scored in meeting the company’s goals to go green.

And they scored well early on with products such as the Mirra chair, introduced in 2003. It was 96 percent recyclable, easy to take apart in 15 minutes, and made with easy-to-process materials such as aluminum and PET.

But the demand for earth-friendliness has ratcheted up in recent years. In particular, Herman Miller has decided its DfE protocol should incorporate impacts revealed through life cycle assessment (LCA), as well as environmental performance of suppliers.

The result is that the outline of a new-and-improved DfE, dubbed DfE 2.0, is in the works, according to Gabe Wing, director of Safety and Sustainability. At the core of the system remains a Cradle to Cradle materials database. It is based on the Cradle to Cradle system developed by Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart. To engineers, the database gives good, bad or indifferent readings for each material, based on the minutiae of chemical makeup.

Paired with the database is a scorecard to rate products. It has several categories. It rates the chemistry as green (100% rating) or not (0% rating). To make interpretation easy, materials get a color code. Green indicates materials as preferred, red as risky, black as banned, yellow and orange as in between.

Along with the chemistry ratings, the scorecard gives products a recycling score, combining scores for recycled content and recyclability, and an ease-of-disassembly score. Each varies from 0 percent to 100 percent.

When engineers tally all the ratings, they get a composite rating. That score now includes an LCA rating and supplier score. A DfE score over 50 percent is considered passably green — not perfect but darn good. Anything less is wanting.

The percentage of products designed with the DfE protocol has steadily risen in the last decade. Progress has been driven by the company’s 2020 goal of 100 percent. As of 2012, the number stood at 60 percent. The goal for 2013: 65 percent.

In adding the LCA component to DfE, three issues popped to the forefront, according to Wing. One was the carbon intensity of materials. A second was the environmental impacts of packaging. A third was the environmental impact of supplier choices.

As for carbon intensity, Wing notes that the issue of greatest concern is highlighted in Herman Miller’s use of Nylon 6. The plastic remains a “workhorse material,” he says. It is strong but lighter than aluminum, spurring engineers to specify it for structural components such as chair-seat frames. But LCA reveals that it uses a lot of energy in production — and thus creates a lot of carbon emissions.

That realization has introduced new tradeoffs for engineers. For example, the company has made big strides in “dematerialization.” But the benefit of material reduction can be offset by the greater carbon intensity.

As for packaging, Wing says that although Herman Miller has long worked on packaging reduction and recyclability, LCA shows that constant improvement is necessary, as packaging remains a big life-cycle concern.

As for supplier performance, Wing notes that LCA indicates upstream activity weighs heavily in environmental results. That’s why Herman Miller last year asked suppliers who make up 50 percent of its “direct spend” to become more sustainable by adopting the company’s zero footprint goals in their own operations. Many suppliers readily complied, and one has even asked the same of its own suppliers.

As for the DfE program overall, Wing says that today the two top challenges are, first, promoting supplier openness about material chemistry, and second, recycling “technical nutrients,” or manmade materials. Both issues have defied easy solutions for years. Engineers need reliable data from suppliers (or suppliers’ suppliers), but suppliers don’t want to give away family secrets unless they have to. Says Wing: “We continuously send the message that we need more and more transparency.”

Likewise, engineers cannot succeed with DfE if industry cannot find ways to easily recycle technical nutrients. As of today, recycling channels remain incompletely developed. Herman Miller is working actively on solutions, according to Wing, but a comprehensive approach to technical-nutrient recycling is not yet at hand. “That still is the question,” he says. “That’s the challenge.”

One example of the challenge comes from an effort to minimize impacts in Herman Miller’s plants. An especially tough task in the last couple of years has been recycling the scrap powder that becomes waste during the coating of file cabinets and other metal products. The company loses up to 40 percent, or over 400 tons, of powder a year. The waste comes from blowing out lines for each color change.

Herman Miller has taken three approaches to reusing this so-called “offal.” It coats interior surfaces customers don’t see with 36 percent of it. It has worked with a local concrete supplier to mix 6 percent into concrete counterweights for the file cabinets. And most recently, it started selling the remaining powder to a third party, netting Herman Miller a penny a pound.

Herman Miller landfilled almost all of its offal several years ago, but today it landfills none. The most interesting solution to disposing of the offal was Herman Miller’s collaboration with local partner VanderWall Brothers Concrete. VanderWall was able to incorporate the offal in a new concrete recipe. The counterweights are now stronger, repel water better, and don’t leech salts as in conventional concrete. They also cost 60 percent less to make.

Stories of such improvement come from years of struggling. Nobody at Herman Miller knew what the solutions would be from the start, but they did know they could advance the state of the art through constant effort, whether in product engineering or factory operations. With the help of LCA and DfE, Herman Miller is now “marching its way down to zero landfill,” says Wing, along with closing the loop on cradle-to-cradle material flow. And it’s even making a pretty penny at the same time.

SB Issues in Focus For more on Cradle to Cradle and other innovative waste-saving initiatives, check out this month's Issue in Focus: #WasteNot.

Bill Birchard is an author, journalist, and book consultant. His most recent book, Merchants of Virtue (Palgrave Macmillan), tells the remarkable story of Herman Miller Inc.’s journey to sustainability. 

[Read more about Bill Birchard]