Focus, Manufacturing, and Sustainability

Haworth moves swiftly toward sustainability goals

Plan is to include sourcing of 100 percent sustainable wood by the end of next year.

April 18, 2014
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Companies are finding it pays to recycle and strengthen their sustainability models. Haworth, for example, is moving toward eliminating 56 dangerous chemicals from its projects by the end of next year. Courtesy Thinkstock

Global furniture manufacturer Haworth Inc. has committed to sourcing 100 percent sustainable wood and eliminating 56 dangerous chemicals from its products by the end of 2015.

The move is part of the company’s overall sustainability initiative, detailed in its just released sustainability report.

Steve Kooy, Haworth’s global sustainability manager, said that, nearly a decade ago, the company began evaluating areas where it thought it could have the greatest environmental impact.

“We started to think a lot about our supply chain and a lot about materials of construction and how they impact our world,” he said. “Then we had to say, ‘OK, what are we going to tackle first?’ and one of the first things we decided on was our wood program.”

The company set an aggressive goal to source 100 percent of its wood from sustainable forests, and identified two key certifications it would utilize to reach its goal: the Forest Stewardship Council and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

FSC is an independent, nonprofit organization that sets standards for responsible forest management. According to its website, more than 380 million acres of forest are certified under its system, including more than 150 million acres in the U.S. and Canada.

PEFC is essentially the European equivalent of FSC.

Certification from both organizations revolves around making sure forests are being managed in ways that support biodiversity and water quality versus forests that are being clear-cut.

“That narrows a lot of our focus in terms of what manufacturers we want to work with, from a pure materials standpoint,” Kooy said.

One of the big changes Haworth made in an effort to reach its goal was making sustainably sourced wood its standard — first in North America in 2012, and now globally. The company spent nearly a year evaluating the impact that making the switch would have on all aspects of its operations, from inventories to computer systems to reporting practices, etc.

Today, approximately 95 percent of its wood is sourced sustainably, in large part due to that standardization.

Kooy said that, initially, the biggest challenges were not having many suppliers to choose from and the increased costs. “We kept working at it and developing our supply chain, getting to a point where that extra cost was getting lower, but we still had to make the sacrifice and pay a little more — pay a premium — to get to that goal.”

In the beginning, Kooy said, the cost was approximately 30-40 percent more, but today it’s only about 15 percent.

“That is something that we’ve seen in sustainability over and over again,” he said. “You have your early adopters, but typically those are really small. But the rest of the industry seems to catch up as time goes on and starts to see a building desire for that and the demand — and, of course, with demand the supply comes and the prices go down.”

Kooy said it’s been harder for Haworth’s smaller suppliers to adapt than for its larger suppliers.

“We have some local suppliers — Great Lake Woods and others — who we’ve partnered with and who we want to maintain good relationships with, who maybe aren’t at the point where they can just flip the switch,” he said. “You don’t want to leave behind some of the smaller suppliers, especially some of our West Michigan partners, but that is something you have to work with them on, and work together to bring that along.”

Kooy sees the company easily gaining another 2 percent toward its goal, but he admitted it will be the last couple of percentage points that will be the biggest challenge. Still, he is confident the company will meet its goal by the close of 2015.

Haworth is having a similarly positive experience eliminating the 56 chemicals from its products that it identified as dangerous.

Kooy said mounting evidence and concern about chemicals being used in day-to-day materials — either used in the manufacture of the materials or the materials themselves — is what led the company to identify its hit list and begin to eliminate them.

He said the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association identified a list of more than 570 chemicals of concern, but eliminating 570 chemicals in one effort wasn’t realistic, so the company developed its own list. Some of the chemicals on Haworth’s list are flame-retardants, heavy metals, PVC and chlorinated chemicals. These chemicals are used in many different types of products, from wiring to textiles to plastics.

“Our goal is to work with all of our supply chain and start to say, ‘OK: A) identify them, and B) put a plan together to eliminate them,” Kooy said.

“What we did is first canvass our suppliers, and that started really in the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013.”

Once the company had a list of chemicals used by its suppliers, it created what it calls a “project” around each material that needed to be eliminated.

“We have more than 50 projects identified,” Kooy said. “Some projects are going to be very easy. One example is a caster supplier in Asia. They were using hexavalent chrome. Now we are working with them to move to trivalent chrome — in a sense, a very simple project with a definitive outcome and really just a few part numbers involved.”

Other projects are more complex. Kooy equates it to moving from coal-based energy to renewable energy: There is something that already works well, is efficient, systems have been built around it, and people have experience and expertise working with it.

“You go into the system and realize you are not just doing a one-for-one swap,” he said.

Often the changes involve retooling or a redesign.

“You often, in a sense, have to retool the way you go about your business,” he said. “You are trying to take out something that has been used over and over again, and it’s very efficient, it does its job. It meets its quality demands, it’s very low risk from the continuity standpoint. When you start to try to disrupt that, you are disrupting a lot of systems.”

As of December 2013, Haworth had achieved 8 percent of its goal, and by the end of 2014, it expects to have reached 40 percent.

Again, Kooy pointed to cost increase as one of the biggest challenges, but he added that isn’t always the case.

“One project we were successful at moving forward in will cost all of Europe $700 — so almost nothing. Another one will be six figures,” he said.

But the benefits outweigh the costs, and Kooy said once the company reaches its goal of eliminating those 56 chemicals, it will look at the next group of chemicals to eliminate and start the process over again. “Eventually, we would like to see all 570 out of there,” he said.

Haworth’s commitment to 100 percent sustainably sourced wood and the elimination of dangerous chemicals from its products is something Kooy said is part of the company’s values-based approach to doing business and something it is willing to be held accountable to by the public.

“We are publicly committing to a pretty aggressive target and … we are trying to hang our hat out there,” he explained.

The company's 2013 sustainability report is available via its website.

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