Specifying It: Herman Miller’s Scott Charon and Susan Lyons @ ICFF 2007

From the 2007 Metropolis Conference: Design Entrepreneurs: Rethinking Energy
May 21, 2007

Specifying It: Scott Charon and Susan Lyons from Herman Miller Speak

Scott Charon: I am part of our Design for the Environment team at Herman Miller, and I am going to talk about what we do. First I want to talk about DJ DuPree, he was the founder of Herman Miller. Back in 1953 before the environmental movement was taking place DJ said Herman Miller shall be a good steward for the environment. We say we are carrying DJ’s DNA within us today.

We are also very fortunate that our president and CEO Brian Walker is very strongly behind our program as well. We have an initiative called Perfect Vision; by the year 2020 we want to be a totally sustainable company. That means we want to have zero landfill, zero hazardous waste, and zero air/water emissions. We want to purchase 100 percent renewable energy, and to have all our buildings at least a minimum of Silver LEED certification.

We want to make sure that 100 percent of our products are designed from the environment protocol. Today we are at about 16 percent, last year we were only at about 6 percent. Improvements have been made not only with our new products coming out of the gate, but with our existing products as well.

This is a napkin sketch by Charles Eames [see image]. When we introduced the Design for the Environment Protocol six years ago, it was really a new constraint, we needed to meet standards of quality, cost, and design. What Charles said is “I don’t remember being forced to accept compromise in the design process, but I willingly accept constraints.” So this sketch shows the sweet spot of the design process. It is one more constraint we have introduced to the culture at Herman Miller, and it is something we have been very successful in doing.

We are working with a company called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), they are out of Charlottesville Virginia. Bill McDonough is a famous architect who is one of the principals, as well as a gentleman named Michael Braungart who is a German chemist. These two guys got together in the mid-1990s, formed this comprehensive protocol called Cradle to Cradle. We have adopted it, and made it a part of the way we do business.

Bill and Michael talk about the two metabolisms. The technical metabolism—an example of that is steel or aluminum, like we use in our products today—which we can recycle at the end of their life. And then we also have the biological metabolism which is about taking from nature and making a product from nature and putting it back to nature.

There are three areas we look at. First is the material chemistry. We take a really deep dive and want to know all of the chemicals that are in the materials that we use. We also want to make sure we are able to disassemble our products at the end of life so we can get these materials back into the technical or biological cycle. Recycled content is important, but more importantly is whether the materials are able to be recycled at the end of the product’s life.

We use a simple spreadsheet to score all of our products three times during the launch process; the early stages, middle stage, and then when we launch a product.

Material chemistry is an area where we spend a lot of time. We are working with some of the biggest chemical companies in the world in order to get very specific information. We ask them for data sheets, or material safety data sheets.

Let’s say we have a material like nylon, which is a plastic material. We need to know all of the components, all of the chemicals that go into it. Materials have a Chemical Abstract Surface (CAS) number that is like a social security number tied to an individual chemical. It explains what the function of that chemical is and what the relative percentage is. And then we also look at recycled content of a material. Did it come from post-industrial or post-consumer? Did it come from a renewable resource and what is its relative recyclabilty? A lot of our suppliers come to us and ask, hey why can’t we just give you the standard government compliance information. We let them know that the Cradle to Cradle protocol is more than compliant, we want to go above and beyond compliance. It is a hazard identification system, which means if there is a small amount of something that might be considered a carcinogen we’ll know—we don’t want to have any of that in there. Basically what we are doing is positively identifying all the chemicals that are in the materials we use in our products.

We have a simple stoplight approach—green, yellow, red, orange—to assessing a material. We get the chemical information from our supply chain and then a consultant rates it based on this scale. Green would come back little or no hazard, yellow is low to moderate hazard, red would be a high hazard such as PVC, which we are trying to get out of our products. Finally, an orange material would be if a chemical company put a new chemical on the marketplace that just hasn’t gone through all the proper assessments. Anything that is green or yellow we will use in our products, anything that is red or orange we are going to try to get those out of our products.

We are going to companies like GE Plastics, BASF, and DuPont and asking for their secret formulas. It is kind of like going to Coca-Cola and saying I need formula 7X—you can image these guys get pretty nervous when we have all of their secret formulas at Herman Miller. What we do is let them know we are only using this for sustainability purposes. We have two chemical engineers on our staff, they are the only two that see that information. Myself as a member of the team doesn’t see that information, not that I would know what to do with it. We let them know we have a secure data file and we put very secret non-disclosures in place in order to get the information. Overall we have been very successful in getting the information. One company said that said they didn’t want to participate. If you don’t participate, guess what, you don’t get sourced for our new product. Recently that company came back to us and said they do want to participate so they can get new business at Herman Miller again.

If you look at a disassembled Aeron chair at the end of its useful life you can see there are a lot of different components that make up the furniture. When we did the breakdown we were told we really need to be better at disassembly. It took a couple of hours to disassemble the chair, and we need to make sure we can get those materials into proper recycling bins.

There are four questions we ask. First, are the materials homogenous? Meaning they can’t be molded steel and plastic together. Did we use common tools to take them apart? Did it take one person more than 30 seconds to reverse a connection? If it takes longer than that the material might end up in a landfill. The materials have to be identified and marked; the plastics have to have the proper recycling codes on them so they can be recycled. If the answer to all of those questions is yes we are going to give ourselves 100 percent credit, if one of those is No, we are not going to give ourselves any credit. Finally, recycling. If a material fits into the technical or biological nutrient cycle we will score that 100 percent, if it’s down-cycled we will give that 50 percent and if we can incinerate it for energy recovery we will give that 25 percent. If it has to go to a landfill we are not going to give ourselves any credit within that score card.

When the astronauts looked out at the Earth it looked like a big blue marble, so when we kicked off this team one of our managers said, Hey, let’s call out team Blue Marble. This is the team that is taking what we consider the red materials out. We are looking at PVC alternatives, we’re trying to get formaldehyde out of our particle board, we are looking at fiber glass replacements, textiles and dyes to making sure we have good chemistry there. We’re looking at safer metal finishes and always looking at bio-based materials. Finally we look at packaging. Because of the quick lifecycle we want to make sure we are using no blanket wrapping. From there I think we are going to turn it over to Susan.

Susan Lyons: As Scott said, I think what’s interesting about what Herman Miller has done is that it has really embedded the idea of sustainable development into its process. In order to see the kind of change that we want to see it is critical for companies and individuals to start thinking about this in a systemic way. It’s not just plucking out a recycled material here for a marketing benefit, you have to look at the whole lifecycle of a product, and the whole lifecycle of the system that supports it. There is obviously a ton of work that we need to do in that direction.

It’s great that large companies, and small ones as well, are starting to put pressure on the chemical companies because the chemical companies make all the stuff that makes other stuff. It is very exciting when large companies use their buying power in that way, and of course we as individuals can do that as well.

I was in Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago and I learned a lot of interesting things, but two in particular. In Abu Dhabi they shipped their first oil in the beginning of the 1970s and in 2047 they will run out of oil. They are working very actively now to develop an economy that is not oil based because they see the clock is ticking. The whole issue of resource scarcity is a very compelling one, and probably the big issue we are all going to face, and certainly our children will face. You hear all these doom and gloom stories that the next war will be fought over water and other resources.

It is exciting to see conferences like this and all of us working together to start thinking about harvesting the built environment for resources. We need to stop looking to the planet to supply all of our resources, and to start being clever and smart in designing our products so we can harvest them when their useful life is over.

The process we use at Herman Miller is very much about designing for the end of life. It’s fun to conceive of a product. What is it going to be made out of? What is it going to look like? But if you are not thinking about where that product is going to end up after you are finished with it, you are doing a disservice to the product, the community of users, and certainly to the planet. What happens to a product? Are all the systems in place to recover the product and recover the value of the resource it’s made with? No, absolutely not, there is a lot of work to be done, but I think we are starting to think in those terms.

The other thing that we discuss a lot is developing a local supply chain. When you are talking about energy this issue of transporting materials in a global economy becomes critical . As much as possible we are trying to work with local resources and developing relationships so we are not having to transport them. But we are a global company. I am not claiming we are only using things from 100 miles around us. But we are mindful of those choices.

One of the big parts of the process is the development of the materials and the chemistry of the materials, because if you are starting to think about the end of life of a product, it is important to know what it is made out of. There are a lot of products in the marketplace now that are using post-consumer waste and post-industrial waste. In many cases these materials aren’t designed to be used in another product. We are trying to think in a forward way to say, How can we design the products so that they come apart and eventually we can take them back and reutilize the materials, and recapture the value of those materials?

The Mirra Chair is the first Cradle to Cradle furniture example that came to the marketplace. And as Scott said, one of the strong directions we have is getting all the PVC out of our products and then making sure they are designed for disassembly. This chair can be taken apart in 15 minutes; we do not currently have a system in place to take the chair back. But we see down the road that that would definitely be in the picture.

All the chemicals are fully assessed, and it is a lot about the health and safety of the materials, because if you want to redeploy materials you are going to want to make sure they are healthful, safe, and can be redesigned in a new product eventually very safely. Only 4 percent of the Mirra Chair is not recyclable. This is also a case of a company looking at processes, looking at supply chains, looking at the make-up of all their materials and saying, How can we continue to optimize what we are doing? How can we always get better? Every day we are all getting smarter, hopefully, and using that knowledge the best we can.

The second Cradle to Cradle chair that was brought to the marketplace is the Celle Chair. In this case we have made it even simpler to take the chair apart and simpler to eventually redeploy those parts and pieces once we have a system to send them in to their next cradle. The whole idea of Cradle to Cradle thinking is embedded in the design process that we use. It is about trying to think about closing the loop, even though there may not be some systems in place to do that yet.

We are looking at developing new materials that perhaps take a little less time than petro-chemicals to develop. Bio-based materials are one of the directions. I am sure you have all read about the bio-based polymers that are coming from starches like corn or beets. The sugars are extracted from the corn kernels, then fermented and polymerized. This is made into staple, it’s woven into fabric, and then it is compostable. In an anaerobic situation 140 degrees with worms and microbes, it will decompose in about 3 days. All of the waste byproducts of this product are put into a composting situation, so again the company looking towards zero waste. It’s an exciting development, there is a lot of work being done on the idea of bio-polymers by a lot of the larger companies and some smaller ones as well, it is an area we are very excited about.

The LEED roadmap is very interesting from the materials development side of product development and as an energy story. You have probably seen as you have been walking around the fair that LED lighting is becoming very interesting. It is an extremely efficient way of generating light. This is a lamp that was designed for Herman Miller by Yves Béhar. It uses 8-9 watts of power, which is a 40 percent energy savings over a 13 watt compact fluorescent. We are trying to look at those technologies that are out there and build better, more exciting products that look lovely, elegant, and beautiful but are also smart.

When I started down this road and working in sustainable development projects, we would go and visit design firms and talk about what we were doing. Somebody would ask, Can’t you just give me a list of what is good? Unfortunately you would say No. This is an extraordinarily complicated topic. When you really think about working through the life cycle of a complete product, and issues of social justice and fairness, it’s a very complex issue.

A lot of the steps we can make as manufacturers and designers are about optimizing products as we move along. I brought a small sample of a product we are making for healthcare. It always struck me a great irony that products used for healthcare are made from some of the most toxic materials we can make. This happens because of all the performance requirements that healthcare has, like ease of cleaning or being impervious to bodily fluids and being antimicrobial. You want something that is going to make somebody feel better but you populate the landscape with these pretty nasty products.

We are doing a lot of work to see how we can develop products for healthcare that will be healthy and still provide the performance requirements that that environment needs. This is a new product, it is an alternative to PVC. Any of you that have been in a health care environment, or have visited a member of family or friend, know that PVC is a favorite for emergency rooms, patient rooms, and anywhere the seating, or anything, is going to see a lot of wear and tear. Those environments are 24/7, they need to be antimicrobial. The statistics as to the number of people that actually get sick as a result of having been in a hospital are staggering, so the whole issue of antimicrobial treatments is very important. Traditionally the antimicrobial element is a chemical called Triclosan, which is known to be a cancer causing material; not a great idea for any environment let alone a healthcare environment. What we are developing here uses silver ion technology to act as an anti-microbial agent. This product has all the qualities of PVC upholstery in that it is extremely durable, you can wipe it down, it is antimicrobial, and it provides a moisture barrier. But we have optimized the chemistry so it is a healthier alternative to what you would normally find in that environment. It’s still in development. We are hoping it will be ready in the next six months. We don’t even have a name yet, right now we’re calling it the alternate PVC upholstery.

Part of the whole process of Cradle to Cradle is showing companies that you can actually make money doing this. Not only is it a good thing to do but it is a profitable thing to do as well.

I have been working on a project that is a polymer paper. We have developed a system to design a polymer paper that is completely healthy. Almost more important is developing a system to bring this material back, a first proof of the concept of a technical nutrient as Bill McDonough and Michael Baumgart put it.

We’ve made a greeting card; you can send it to your mother or somebody. It comes in an envelope, when they receive the card they can keep it; if you wrote something extremely profound and they want to tuck it into their keepsake box. But if you are like me and a week later you are ready to throw it in to the recycling or the trash; the recipient is instructed instead to put the card into this envelope, which is prepaid. The card will then be sent to Shaw Carpets, and then Shaw will use this material as carpet backing. So the product is really designed to move to its next cradle. This is just a proof of concept, showing that the loop can be closed and how you can set up an industrial system to reclaim the value of those materials.

I have one overwhelming question here and an observation. We are designing products very differently now and designing a product until the end of its life. We haven’t talked a lot about that. And I think you should design products with a natural end of life. For me it goes back to this idea of systems thinking.

As product designers you get so caught up in your idea. I have this idea for a product and it is going to look like this and it is going to feel like this and it is going to be this color and those are all incredibly important things; and products need those emotional attributes as well as performance attributes.

What we are seeing now is really this idea of looking at the deployment of products in the world as a much larger macro-system. The challenge of what we all have is convincing companies to adopt that thinking, and showing them that there are ways to make that very economically viable. What Herman Miller has done is fascinating because they really have embedded this thinking into their process. They are a good example, and are called by other companies all the time looking to benchmark their progress.

Susan Szenasy: I think that is a very important thing because you are part of the West Michigan Sustainable Forum where you actually share this information among manufacturers.

Lyons: Because it is the environmental movement, it is an area we don’t compete against one another. When we were implementing the Cradle to Cradle protocol we did go to the West Michigan Sustainable Forum and let them know what we were doing. A couple years later our competitors started adopting the same principles on the furniture. I think it is a good thing that everybody should participate in.

And there is a program to benchmark like-minded companies like Nike. There is a lot of information sharing between Herman Miller and a company like Nike. It is such a huge problem it will take everybody working together.

Categories: Healthcare Architecture, Uncategorized