Is is one thing—and devilishly difficult at that—to create a carbon-neutral building. But what about the products and materials inside? Can they be carbon neutral as well? The short answer is, theoretically, yes—but there are two huge roadblocks that make real carbon neutrality still very much a speculative exercise for most manufacturers.
The first is the nature of products, which tend to be composed of numerous components. Any attempt at achieving carbon neutrality, therefore, begins with an insanely thorough analysis of each and every part. “You have to determine how much energy is used to assemble and extract all of the raw materials from the ground through production and delivery,” says chemist Gabe Wing, Herman Miller’s Design for the Environment manager. “You also need to look at how you handle end-of-life disposal. To go into that process is a significant endeavor, and the best way to do that today is through some proprietary software.”
Even if Herman Miller cut its own carbon output to near zero—which today would likely be cost prohibitive—the emissions of its suppliers and subcontractors would still be unaccounted for. “The challenge that we see once we go outside our four walls is trying to find a standardized way to determine carbon footprint,” Wing says. Right now that doesn’t exist, and the company’s suppliers lack the resources to do the necessary research themselves. “So we’re a long way from carbon neutrality,” Wing says. That, he explains, leaves the company with one imperfect option: “If we wanted to take all our products carbon neutral, we would have to buy offsets.”
Web extra: A Q&A with Gabe Wing of Herman Miller