Human Resources, Manufacturing, and Sustainability

Steelcase learns lessons in global corporate sustainability

From product materials to cafeteria food, everything is scrutinized.

February 22, 2013
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Steelcase learns lessons in global corporate sustainability
Steelcase employees worked on a Habitat for Humanity site in West Michigan as part of the manufacturer's "project day." Globally, Steelcase employees donated 5,361 volunteer service hours in 2011. Courtesy Steelcase

With 100 years behind it, Steelcase has entered 2013 thinking about how to ensure it will be around for another century.

“The 100th anniversary gave us a chance to go back and look at the things that have always been core to what we believe in,” said Nancy Hickey, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Steelcase. “Being a sustainable business in the broadest sense — not just the environmental piece, but social consciousness, etc. — was something we really looked back on and thought about: where we are today and how we want to continue to develop that way.”

Like many manufacturers, Steelcase began its corporate sustainability efforts with a focus on environmental impacts. Between 2006 and 2011, the company set substantial goals for reducing energy and water use as well as waste reduction and increased efficiencies to lessen its footprint on the environment.

In its 2012 corporate sustainability report, released in January, it noted several successes:

  • 37 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions;
  • 54 percent reduction in water consumption;
  • 23 percent reduction in waste;
  • 53 percent reduction in VOCs;
  • 25 percent (equivalent) of U.S. electricity usage came from Wege Wind Farm.

Steelcase already has set new environmental goals for 2020, planning to reduce its global environmental footprint by another 25 percent.

“One of the things that you learn by doing sustainability work for a period of time is that there is no ‘finished,’” said Angela Nahikian, director of global environmental sustainability at Steelcase. “Also, organizations are complex, especially when you think about it at the scale of the company.”

Nahikian said even Steelcase hasn’t found a one-size-fits-all formula for implementing new sustainability efforts. Each piece is evaluated based on its own set of dimensions.

She gave an example of making an operational change, saying it might begin with an assessment, audit or inventory, followed by reviewing the options that have the most potential to provide value.

“We really have to assess what it is we are trying to do,” Nahikian said. “How do we get the biggest impact for the least amount of disruption and energy of the people? We want to get the most done, so we have to think about the energy level. Some things are just hard, and you know it’s going to be hard and draining on the company.”

Nahikian also said that when talking about a $2 billion to $3 billion company, the ideas of “zero and 100” need to be set aside.

“The most you can do is try to optimize the value that you are creating and minimize the materials and the assets you are consuming, so that you are delivering more in value than you are consuming,” Nahikian said.

For Steelcase, a main focus is on the lifecycle of a product and creating closed-loop processes. It has identified three main environmental issues — toxicity, consumption and waste — and is continually working to improve its materials and efficiencies to address these.

Nahikian pointed out that the lifecycle process begins by making the right choices in materials when creating a product, looking not just at the material’s toxicity but also the energy used in extracting or creating it. Second, it considers the processes used to create, distribute and eventually re-collect the product. Finally, it focuses on the disassembly of the product after it has reached its end of use, thinking about how the materials will be reintegrated.

Steelcase has chemists who work to develop materials that can replace less environmentally healthy ones currently in use.

In addition, Steelcase has increased its focus on building sustainable communities through social investment in the cities where it operates.

The company has implemented programs, including Friends InDeed in Grand Rapids and the Steelcase Community Outreach Program in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to help it achieve these goals. Both programs provide employees at all levels of the company with paid time to volunteer during their workday.

“This summer we did a really interesting thing of some scale. … We took almost 100 employees out of our manufacturing area over the period of the day and brought them into one neighborhood, sort of a neighborhood clean-up (an effort with Habitat for Humanity),” Hickey said. “They worked side-by-side — whether they were leaders, managers, front line — helping to repair homes, helping that neighborhood get a fresh start.

“It was very rewarding for the employees, and Habitat was glad to have that kind of significant effort. For us to have it be a Steelcase effort was really rewarding.”

Steelcase sustainability
Courtesy Steelcase

Globally, Steelcase employees donated 5,361 volunteer service hours in 2011.

“We do believe that the desire to give and to give back is something that spans all the employees at Steelcase, and so we wanted to be very inclusive in this policy.”

Steelcase also has found unique ways to partner with communities that are both socially and environmentally impactful.

In Detroit, design student Veronika Scott was tasked with a project to “fill a need” with a product. She approached Steelcase about her idea for a self-heated, waterproof coat that would turn into a sleeping bag for the Detroit homeless population. Steelcase’s supply chain team worked with Scott to provide scrap fabrics, Tyvek and wool from its Kentwood location to be used as lining for the jackets. To date, the company has donated 6,000 yards of fabric, and 22,000 homeless have received the jackets.

Additionally, Steelcase employees and the Steelcase Foundation donated millions of dollars to support the communities where its employees live and work. Employee donations totaled $1.1 million in 2011.

At its global headquarters, employees are reminded daily about Steelcase’s broad sustainability efforts, starting with the cafeteria. The company has a wall-length mural that includes statistical information on environmental impacts and wellness. It also offers employees every option available before the trash can for getting rid of waste — recycling and composting.

The cafeteria also tries to locally source its food choices, and in the summer the company has launched a weekly onsite farmers market.

Employees can bring household recyclables such as batteries to work for recycling, saving them trips around town.

“Those are the things, as people think about sustainability in a broader sense, that are really growing in importance today — that more holistic view of what being sustainable means,” Hickey said.

She said the latest CSR report reflects this broader focus, and Steelcase will continue to balance its global environmental and social sustainability efforts.

Steelcase’s full CSR report can be found at csr.steelcase.com.

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