Steelcase Further Cleans Office Act

August 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — A new partnership with a irginia firm renowned for sustainable design will further build Steelcase Inc.’s focus on designing and producing eco-friendly office furnishings.

Through the design collaboration with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), Steelcase wants to further a strong environmental heritage and is aiming for cradle-to-cradle environmental design and a strategy here products are made mostly or entirely with recycled and recyclable materials.

According to its director of environmental performance, David Rinard, Steelcase “applies a broad definition of quality to its products, which includes assessing the potential human and environmental impact across entire product life cycles.

“Through this collaboration with MBDC,” Rinard added, “we will enhance our existing product design process and further define our corporate strategy with an eye on continuous improvement and environmental sustainability.”

The first example of Steelcase’s elevated emphasis in sustainable design principles and production techniques came in June with the introduction of the Think chair, a mid-market office chair that’s made of 99 percent recyclable and 41 percent recycled materials and uses no polyvinylchloride plastic.

“Not only is it comfortable and beautiful but it has a great environmental solution,” said Frank Merlotti Jr, president of Steelcase North America.

And by many accounts, clients of office furniture makers are increasingly demanding eco-friendly products produced using sustainable designs and materials as they seek to follow LEED building principles that reduce energy consumption, cut waste and place a high reliance on the use of recycled and recyclable materials.

In a 2003 survey by the International Facility Management Association on sustainability practices, 48 percent of the respondents indicated their company purchases so-called earth-friendly products, systems or materials “that produce as little pollution as possible in use and in production.”

Thirty-six respondents to the IFMA survey added environmental criteria to their vendor and product selection.

At Steelcase, some 80 percent of all requests for proposals from clients have some form of environmental component, said Allan Smith, head of the company’s environmental strategy.

Most office furniture makers today place a higher priority on environmentally friendly office furnishings.

“That’s kind of the landscape today. It’s at the height of people’s minds,” Smith said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is take a look at what the market needs and what are the demands of customers and anticipate the market.”

In addressing an environmental conference earlier this year sponsored by Herman Miller Inc., MBDC principal William McDonough spoke of an emerging design revolution driven by a growing corporate environmental ethic and economic benefits of sustainable design.

McDonough, who’s consulted for Herman Miller for several years, cited examples where clients have generated significant savings through sustainable practices designed to eliminate waste materials, reduce energy and water consumption and protect the environment, while allowing designers to create buildings that generate more energy than they use.

“The whole model for production is really ready to be completely revolutionized,” said McDonough, who helped design the $2 billion overhaul of Ford Motor Co.’s massive  Rogue industrial complex in Dearborn

In the past at Steelcase, MBDC consulted with DesignTex, a Steelcase subsidiary, to develop a collection of fabrics and has established initial goals with the corporation for their new collaboration.

MBDC, based in Charlottsville, Va., will assess the top 10 materials Steelcase uses to eliminate waste, optimize products and processes, and to create criteria for selecting materials.

The partnership eventually will transcend into innovative product design, Smith said. Some new products could make it to the market in as little as six months, he said.

“You’ll see something that’s pretty serious and pretty impactful for the industry,” Smith said.

In teaming with MBDC, Steelcase wants to take “to the next level” an environmental heritage that includes the opening two years ago of the first LEED-certified wood production facility, the elimination of volatile organic compounds from products, and exceeding regulatory standards for environmental compliance.

The philosophy and practice is economically beneficial because it eliminates waste and is “the right thing to do” ethically, Smith said.

“Environmentalism and business can really work hand in glove in a very responsible way and this is an example of that,” he said. “We’re building on the success and the momentum in the marketplace of being an environmental leader. We have the potential to affect the world in a huge way by creating really great products and the stuff that’s in them is of really great quality.”    

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