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How The Office Furniture Industry Is Doing Their Part To Save The Planet

Get rid of your plastic straws, add a recycling receptacle to your office space and turn off the lights when you go home.  Everyone knows that basic skills of ‘doing better’, but is that really enough?  The answer, in short, is no. Now, more than ever, companies are pushing to be the change so many generations before us have talked about.

But being more eco-friendly is not a completely new concept to modern office and home furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.  Herman Miller’s founder, D.J. De Pree, believed that every employee should be within 75 feet of a window.  The idea of using daylight to light a space, instead of electricity, would cut down on energy bills and in turn eliminate the pollution that producing electricity brings.  De Pree also required that any new space would need to have at least 50% made available for green space to promote a healthy work environment. Both of these ideas are still being used today.

The structure of a building was just the beginning. How could materials, products, and the lifecycle of furniture change the planet? What happens to the old furniture when a school or business needs a furniture update and brings in the new? That is exactly what Herman Miller wanted to know.  Unfortunately, they found that 67% of old furniture and products are turned to waste and taken to the landfill each year, leaving just 25% finding a second use.

Reducing Office Furniture Waste

Herman Miller jumped into action starting the rePurpose program, which reduces the number of unwanted products from turning into waste and piling on to the landfill levels. Product waste contributes to over 200 million tons of waste each year. Instead, those ‘old’ and still very functional office pieces are donated and reused in businesses with insufficient funds, often non-profit organizations. Businesses that opt-in to this donation program are eligible for a tax credit for their charitable donation. Herman Miller found that by disposing of 100 offices through the rePurpose program, they could help reduce carbon emissions by 37.5 tons.

Freedom Interiors, a Herman Miller dealer, assisted with this program during their 2019 project with Exelon, a nuclear electric power generation company, located in Chicago.  Through the renovation of their corporate headquarters, Exelon wanted a solution for decommissioning their current furniture that aligned with their corporate sustainability objectives: minimize the environmental impact, support local community organizations, and maximize economic return through resale.

EcoServ and Herman Miller rePurpose customized a solution that resold Exelon’s high-value office products and donated to local community organizations, such as Chicago Public Schools, Little City, Strengthening a Nation, Riverdale Police Department, Oak Forest Police Department, and Dolton Police Department.

Through the rePurpose program, an incredible 600,140 pounds of office furniture and products were diverted from the landfill through one of the four avenues: reSale, reUse, reCycle, and reLocate.

ReSale: 305,180 pounds (50.9%)

ReUse: 170,260 pounds (28.4%)

ReCycle: 93,360 pounds (15.6%)

ReLocate: 31,340 pounds (5.2%)

In addition, disassembling the office furniture allowed for the opportunity to recycle raw products.

Exelon’s third objective, maximizing economic return through resale, was also met when they were credited from Freedom Interiors for their landfill diversion.  In just the first two of the four-phase renovation, Exelon received a $20,176.92 credit toward their new furniture.

Herman Miller continues to build and change their strategies to improve sustainability.  They have added a Design for the Environment (DfE) team, to grow their new product line that goes beyond normal compliance protocols. They look at four main categories:

                Material Chemistry and Safety of Inputs: using the safest chemicals possible

                Disassembly: recycle materials at the end of the products life

                Recyclability: materials should be made of recyclable content

                Life Cycle Assessment: products should have the longest life cycle as possible

Recycling Office Furniture Materials

A number of other companies are joining the cause to find more eco-friendly ways to create office furniture. Corporate Social Responsibility is an international, self-regulation of businesses that aims to contribute to societal goals.

The LIVING PRODUCT CHALLENGE, started within the last decade, challenges manufacturers to use their framework to rethink the way products are made.  How can they reduce their footprint and negative effects on the environment, and increase their handprints and positive effects?  Companies look at the two and determine whether they are doing more good than harm, a process called the Net Positive Impact.

Humanscale has dived into the environmental conservation portion. Their motto of ‘Less Bad Isn’t Good Enough’ takes it a step further, by not only focusing on reducing their carbon footprint and other negative effects, but consciously working to make significant positive contributions to the environment. The manufacturer looked at what they were creating and what materials they were using and decided how they could give back and replenish, leaving the Earth a better place than they found it.

Humanscale participates in a similar program to rePurpose, called BEAM. In 2019, the company’s global waste diversion rate was 86.9%, meaning they recycled office furniture materials 86.9% of the time, instead of going to the ever-growing landfill. They also eliminated Chrome 6, a toxic chemical compound used in dyes, paints, and plastics, from all office furniture products.

While Humanscale is doing their part on the back end, by helping divert and dispose home office products, they have taken a more proactive approach and attacked part of the problem on the front end.  Humanscale’s design team took a look at their products to determine what could be done before the creation and assembly of the furniture to reduce waste and emissions. 

1. Body Weight Chairs

An easy start to making a change, this move to replace the old way ergonomic home and office chairs were manufactured did not require any outside factors to product a positive change.  The designers simply had to reimagine the way they would create the chair. How could they minimize the number of parts on a chair, without compromising the comfort their customers were used to? Body weight. By using the laws of physics and a sitter’s body weight, Humanscale improved their home and office seating in more ways than one.  Environmentally, they reduced the number of knobs, levers and other heavy mechanisms and number of parts needed to once make the change move.  Allowing the sitter’s body weight to move the chair made it possible for users to move more naturally while providing one of the most comfortable seating options available.   

2. smartOCEAN chair

This ergonomic office task chair was named the most sustainable chair in the world.  Each year, hundreds of thousands of fishing nets are discarded into the ocean that are no longer of value to fishermen.  In turn, sea animals and other wildlife are trapped and ultimately die from the abandoned nets.  Humanscale began to purchase these nets from fishermen at the end of their useful life, grinding them up into plastic pellets, and then using those pellets to create the arms and other parts of the smartOCEAN chair. Each office chair uses almost two pounds of recycled fishing net.

3. Diffrient Smart chair

During the manufacturing of this chair, Humanscale, in combination with their supply chain, creates a footprint by releasing 34kg in carbon emissions, using 144kWh of energy and 484 gallons of water. In order to counteract their footprint for a handprint, they replaced incandescent lights with LED lights.  This reduced carbon emissions by 172kg, energy by 690kWh, and 7721 gallons of water.  In total, the net positivity was 138 kg, 546kWh, and 7238 gal of water, over a ten-year period.

4. The Neat Suite

The Neat Suite from Humanscale is a line of storage and organization solutions in office furniture.  They focus on cleanliness, hence the name “Neat”, to declutter your workspace.  But just like most products manufactured by Humanscale, they too are certified under the Living Product Challenge.  Humanscale not only recycles everyday items harmful to the environment, but also recycles and up-cycles their own products, minimizing waste throughout.  One product in that line, the NeatTech, is a cable management solution that uses a mesh basket that connects to the back of your office or student desk as a catch-all to cables. These mesh baskets are created from the left-over mesh that went unused in the creation of office task chairs.

5. Float table

This line of sit-stand tables (float, eFloat Lite, eFloat Flex) gained its Living Product certification in 2016 and is another example of products where Humanscale has up-cycled their unused materials.  These height-adjustable tables were manufacturer with recycled steel and with its very sleek and minimalistic design, requires very few parts, certifying them as a Level 3 Sustainability Standard.