Q&A: Herman Miller’s Gabe Wing on Carbon-Neutral Furnishings

The Aeron Chair has about 200 parts–all of which have to be analyzed to determine its carbon footprint. Photo: courtesy Herman Miller

There’s a reason why big companies are almost duty bound to take the lead in sustainable design. To get a handle on the complexity of the task—whether it’s designing a zero-energy building system, or truly closing the loop on a task chair—requires time, money, and expertise. Recently I spoke to Gabe Wing, Herman Miller’s Design for the Environment manager, about the unique challenges of achieving carbon neutrality for products.

Is carbon neutrality for products even possible and, if it is, what has to be done to get there?

We’ve been working in this area for several years. With products, there are some pretty significant challenges to approaching carbon neutrality. The first thing you have to do is determine how much energy is used to assemble and extract all the raw materials from the ground through your production and delivery. Then you 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 packages.

Take the Aeron chair as an example. Do you conduct a life-cycle assessment on each piece of the chair? Does it get that granular?

You certainly have to know how every part of the chair is made, the materials, the exact weight of each component, how they’re finished, how they’re colored—whether they’re powder coated or E-coated or Autophoretic coated. There are about two hundred parts.  Then you can’t make assumptions about how they’re shipped or where they’re shipped from. We factor all of that in, as well as the energy used to assemble the chair, and then translate it into carbon emissions. That process is relatively straightforward. But if you don’t have access to one of these proprietary databases, it’s a huge task to gather the information. You also need a staff that is knowledgeable enough to put the model together. Both require a significant investment. Once those pieces are in place, it’s not too difficult to put together carbon footprints. We’ve been doing that for our major product lines, as well as our new releases. The problem that we see once we go outside the four walls of Herman Miller is finding a standardized way to determine carbon footprints. Right now there is no single standard. Also, the different software packages can influence the results.

All manufacturers rely on subcontractors. How do you factor in their carbon footprints?

We use industry averages. By and large that’s best you can do, because our suppliers don’t have the level of sophistication needed to break down how much energy goes into the pieces and parts and materials they’re making. So, obviously, the best way now to get to carbon neutral is to buy offsets. But ultimately what we’d like to do is drive our suppliers towards the use of renewables in their manufacturing processes, so that we’re not just offsetting but we’re moving towards renewably-powered infrastructure and supply chains. The reality is, today, we can’t measure exactly how much carbon goes into our products. What we can do is compare what we do to somebody else.

So the more realistic goal is lowering your overall carbon emissions?

We want to drive it down and set benchmarks around how much carbon should be used in each product type. Material selection plays a big role here. Nylon, for example, has a huge carbon footprint. It’s a fantastically engineered polymer but it’s an energy hog. And aluminum falls into the same category. Materials like polypropylene have a much lower carbon footprint, but you can’t necessarily do the same things from a design standpoint. It’s just another factor you have to work around when you are designing products.

This happens across all the product lines. Hospitals would love to eliminate all PVC but vinyl is cheap and in some municipalities it’s even in the code.

The biggest hurdle we see today with going carbon neutral is that the fact that these carbon offsets are an unregulated market. We’ve been investigating offsets and talked to a very reputable firm selling them. And they had several billion dollars worth of offsets for sale. We were looking for current-vintage offsets. They wouldn’t, for example, fund future wind farms. We wanted them to be auditable and trackable, which meant for us they would be U.S. based. For those types of offsets, their portfolio shrunk by seventy percent.

The current carbon market is almost ephemeral. Since there’s no cap and trade, it’s a bit of a hypothetical market.

It is certainly abstract and hard to get your head around. That brings me to my final point. We have a waste-energy facility. We produce some renewable energy that we could conceivably use to take a small product line carbon neutral. To me, it makes more sense to do that than to pay someone based on the promise that they will actually offset carbon somewhere.

Related: In the October issue of the magazine, James S. Russell looks at two new buildings that attempt to achieve carbon neutrality.

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