MMQB On Humanscale's Sustainability Leadership

Exactly one Contract Manufacturer has taken the environmental threat to our planet seriously. And guess what, it isn't MillerKnoll, Haworth, HON, Steelcase, Vitra, or even Emeco.

Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll) opened the fall season last week with a hail mary pass that was dropped (on all of us). Instead of trying for a first down, Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll's) crack PR team decided to go for the end-zone on the game's first play. This time though, I'm not having any of it, and neither  should you. It's time for a booth review.

Last month the company regaled editors of Fast Company, Quartz, Surface Magazine and the Business of Home with dreamy stories of how a reconstituted, warmed-over (27-year-old) Aeron chair could be the first step in saving the planet. If only.

"The 116-year old company announced on Sept. 1 that the next generation of Aeron chairs will be manufactured using discarded plastic bottles and fishing nets culled from coastal cities in India and Indonesia," writes Anne Quito for Quartz. "It anticipates that using ocean-bound plastic waste in the supply chain will prevent about 150 tons of plastic—approximately 400,000 milk jugs or 23 million water bottles—from further polluting the world's waterways. By using the Aeron as a test case, Herman Miller hopes to demonstrate that tricky waste material can be engineered to create products of high design."

Laughable. That has already been demonstrated.

Apparently, unbeknown to Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll), one company has been doing this (and much much more on that front) for years. But Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll) won't mention their name and hopes that nobody else does either.

It's a shame, too, because that company holds more certified actual green credentials than any other office furniture maker on the planet. Yes, the same world we now need to save unless we want to start making furniture that floats.

Like many of the companies in the industry, Herman Miller's (or MillerKnoll's) PR folks try to spin their meager attempts at being green into fluffy stories of success - saving the planet one chair at a time. Almost every company in the industry is guilty of it to one degree or another. Most, if not all, of them are either bullshit or wish-list items deliverable in a decade (that they expect you to forget).

Oh wait, there is one company that actually has been working diligently for nearly a decade on ensuring that the products they sell not only don't harm their purchasers but also don't harm the folks making the products or the planet they make them on (i.e., earth). That is a worthy goal and a goal that has been chiefly achieved for them.

I've been researching this lately. I found that many manufacturers are pretty actively engaged in trying to greenwash their company or its products to one extent or another.

In case you're wondering what greenwashing is, the rule book states: "Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company's products are environmentally friendly."

And that brings us to the unbelievable fiction that pervades the industry. There is an apparent lack of transparency when it comes to the manufacturing of most of our products. When I say "apparent," I really mean there is no transparency.

I have poured over all the Sustainability Reports issued (most yearly) by the likes of MillerKnoll (or Herman Miller), Steelcase, Hon, Kimball, Haworth, and even Emeco. None of them appear to have done any of the hard work required to be transparent on what the hell is in their products or whether or not they are made safely and sustainably. What I found was lots and lots of promises and wishful thinking. Sure, by 2030 all of them promise us smaller carbon footprints ("ahead of the Paris Climate Accords," one boasts). Good thing the US was readmitted to the Agreement. Heck, Haworth promises us they'll achieve much stuff by 2025. They also alert us that they bought new trucks that get better gas mileage - lowering their carbon footprint. Kudos to them.

To be fair, many manufacturers have certifications from organizations like SCS Global attesting to measure offgassing of specific products. Big deal. Upon closer inspection, most of these certifications mean nothing as far as the environment is concerned. My favorite is the Steelcase section on their website titled "Certifications and Environmental Declarations." Here we're able to view all their certificates. I clicked on a number of them and discovered that most are just indoor air quality certifications. Worse, almost all of them are expired and no longer valid. This is just plain sloppy work and shows these companies' utter disregard for actually doing anything meaningful or transparent.

Besides SCS, Intertek is another sustainability certifier. But when you read the fine print on the actual certificate, you have to laugh: "The observations and test/inspection results referenced in this Certificate are relevant only to the sample tested/inspected. This Certificate by itself does not imply that the material, product, or service is or has ever been under an Intertek certification program."

You can be excused for believing that the term "sustainability" might be being misused.

Sure, most buyers are not going to pour over hundreds of pages of mostly worthless or expired certifications. That's why I did it and concluded that most of these certifications do not affect sustainability, environmental impact, or even concern themselves with how a product is sourced or manufacturered. For instance, having achieved a BIFMA Level of some sort or another is a great start. Still, given that it's AN INDUSTRY TRADE ASSOCIATION, it may not be as comprehensive as totally independent organizations like the International Living Future Institute. But again, it's better than nothing, and more manufacturers need to do this at a minimum. Corporate purchasers will need to see DECLARE or ingredient labels for every product. This is especially true if there is a Gen-Z in the purchasing group.

If you haven't guessed by now, there is one company in a league all its own on the issue of transparency, sustainability, and doing it right. The company, Humanscale, has been all over these issues for nearly a decade. If you read the various stories from last week about the Aeron chair now using ocean-bound plastic - including fishing nets you would get the impression that it's a concept they came up with for the contract industry. Wrong. Humanscale has been using RECLAIMED fishing nets abandoned or already in the ocean to make products, specifically seating, for almost four years. Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll) is late to the game, but sure, kudos for getting on board.

Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll) and Humanscale both belong to a group called Next Wave Plastics. The group consists of manufacturers who are interested in finding ways to use and recycle plastics. This is a great and noble cause to be sure. However, they are NOT a certifying organization and Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll), like other companies, are simply members. More contract manufacturers need to join and collaborate to improve their knowledge base and then share innovative strategies and best practices. It could turn into an excellent resource for everyone. It could even help the planet.

Better still, join Humanscale and companies like Mohawk over at the International Living Future Institute. There you could get products certified to actual green standards. The Living Product Challenge is a holistic framework for manufacturers to create products that are healthy, inspirational, and give back to the environment. Their DECLARE label is the gold standard for products. Manufacturers are using the Living Product Challenge framework to rethink the way products are made. Instead of trying to be "less bad," they create goods that have a positive impact.

As of now, 60 percent (by revenue) of Humanscale's products comply with the Living Building Challenge criteria. Humanscale's compliance was achieved by taking a proactive role in identifying all of the ingredients in their products. Being proactive includes working with their suppliers at all levels to identify and evaluate the ingredients in their products, packaging, manufacturing processes, and key partners in their supply chain. It's a process well above what BIFMA offers.

Today, Humanscale publishes thorough and accurate lists of material ingredients for all of its products. Like nutritional labels on food, they use standard formats to publish the ingredients: Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Declare labels. The company is committed to informing and educating customers about their products' contents so they can make the best decisions possible.

And, once the ingredients are identified, they evaluate each one for its impact on people and the environment. They systematically replace chemicals of serious concern with safer alternatives.

Finally, diverting ocean-bound plastics as the Aeron chair does is a worthy cause, but it only scratches the surface of the broader challenge of mismanaged waste. It also doesn't address the other components of the chair. To help consumers make informed decisions about the environmental impact of their furniture purchases, additional tiers of classification are needed that encompass the full range of potential environmental impacts created by the product on its makers and endusers. That's called transparency. So, please don't flaunt it until you've got it. Humanscale, it seems, has it.

Last week the Aeron chair got upgraded with ocean-bound plastic. This week Herman Miller (or MillerKnoll) will argue in favor of showing California jurors in an upcoming trade dress trial that its Aeron office chair was illustrious enough to be featured in The Simpsons and Casino Royale while a rival is set to challenge the use of the media clips. And so it goes.

Finally, the issues surrounding sustainability and the environment and the certifying of products are complex. Last week, I discussed all of this with Jane Abernethy , the Chief Sustainability Officer of Humanscale, via a video interview. It's not a podcast, but it is an excellent explainer of these issues, and you can watch it HERE. Full transparency: it's 47 minutes long, so grab a beer.

This concludes the booth review of the Aeron's latest green story.

About Humanscale

Humanscale is the leading designer and manufacturer of high-performance ergonomic products that improve the health and comfort of work life. Through leveraging new technology in functional yet minimal designs, Humanscale transforms traditional offices into active, intelligent workspaces. Committed to making a net positive impact on the earth as well as our customers, Humanscale offers award-winning products designed with a focus on function, simplicity and longevity. 

Click here for more information on Humanscale and our products

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