FOR SUPPLIERS LOOKING TO
partner with Herman Miller, sustainability isn't just a value-add. It's the only way they'll get a piece of business with the global furniture producer. And vendors can't just talk green—they have to prove it.
Probably best known for transforming the rather mundane category of office furniture with its Aeron chair in 1994, Herman Miller is fast becoming just as famous for its push to sustainability.
Since 1997, the company has been following the Cradle to Cradle (or C2C) design philosophy as part of its Design for the Environment program. Popularized by William McDonough in the book he coauthored, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things [North Point Press, 2002], C2C calls for product materials to be harvested and processed in a sustainable manner, and then reused at the end of their life cycle. For example, a plastic chair that has snap-together parts can be easily disassembled at the end of life and the plastic recycled for future use.
“The impetus for doing cradle-to-cradle goes back a bunch of years,” says Gabe Wing, Design for the Environment manager at Herman Miller. “Our founder, D.J. DePree, was always passionate about the environment and making that a part of the corporate value system.”
But the company knew it had to convince its suppliers—and its suppliers' suppliers—to get with the program.
ALL IN THE DETAILS
Incorporating C2C strategies into Herman Miller's project management processes means establishing sustainablespecific milestones at key points in development initiatives.
From the start, every new-product team at Herman Miller works with someone from the Design for the Environment group.
“We are part of the product development process, but it is our job to promote good environmental decisions,” Mr. Wing says.
Consider this the green team. These are the people who screen and rate the design choices, including materials, manufacturing chemicals, processes and recyclability.
All of the information must then be documented as part of the C2C certification process. “From a project management standpoint, cradle-to-cradle is all in the details,” Mr. Wing says.
And having dedicated environmental defenders on the team keeps the focus on C2C goals, he says. “Our company had the foresight early on to realize that if environmental strategies were added to the responsibility of the project manager, they might not receive the same attention,” Mr. Wing says.
Once a preliminary design is made, a Design for the Environment team member looks at it through the lens of C2C, assessing material attributes, chemicals and process steps, then points out those materials or steps that should be changed.
The team then must go back to suppliers with the new directives, explains Kim Buckley, director of supply chain management at Herman Miller. “[Mr. Wing] sets the targets and we work with the suppliers' engineers to try to find alternatives.”
When a green alternative is found, the supply-chain management team must retest it for other product attributes, including durability, quality and cost, before approving it for use. “We redo the full battery of tests from scratch,” Mr. Buckley says.
To keep vendors motivated, Mr. Buckley's team uses its own scorecard to rate their performance on issues such as quality, on-time delivery and sustainability.
“If a vendor is tasked with finding a more environmentally suitable material, they are rated on their success,” he says. “We set clear expectations, and these days we don't get much pushback.”
That wasn't always the case, however.
“The hardest part of doing C2C was getting suppliers on board,” admits Mr. Wing.
PARTING WITH THE SECRET FORMULA
From plastics molders to chemical manufacturers, each supplier had to be willing to find or design materials that meet the rigorous C2C specifications. That list includes 19 human and environmental health criteria to ensure materials are not harmful to the environment or people, and can either be recycled, remanufactured or composted.
The certification process requires proof, such as ingredient lists and material-test data. But getting vendors to hand over that information took some hardcore negotiation.
“These suppliers were not accustomed to being asked to give up their formulas,” says Mr. Buckley, chuckling.
Mr. Wing and Mr. Buckley found it particularly challenging to get buy-in from the very large chemical companies, such as Dow and GE, which the smaller furniture manufacturer didn't have a lot of leverage with.
“It took numerous meetings with key members of their teams, including product management, health and safety and our own internal staff to win their support,” Mr. Wing says.
With other suppliers, Herman Miller leveraged its existing relationships, bringing in engineers from its tier-one suppliers of wood, steel, die-cast aluminum and molded plastics to the early meetings with tier-two vendors.
“Having the tier-one suppliers in the meeting made their suppliers more comfortable and it helped us establish an understanding of how their supply chain works,” Mr. Wing says.
Once connections were established, however, the Herman Miller team had to meet directly with the tier-two teams to review final formulas and verify ingredients and processes met their sustainability requirements. “They wouldn't have been comfortable revealing their formulas to suppliers who could use the information for competitive advantage,” says Mr. Wing.
THE GREEN LIGHT
Sustainability is now business as usual for the Herman Miller team and its partners.
“In the first few years we were constantly canvassing for materials, doing assessments and building our knowledge,” says Mr. Wing. “But as we have brought more vendors on board we've found that we are influencing the development of new products. They know if they are going to make a material for us, it's got to be cleaner.”
Mr. Buckley agrees. “These days, every supplier of consequence knows that if they want to grow their business they have to support sustainability goals, and they see that it benefits them as well as us.”
This process has resulted in dozens of C2C certifications for Herman Miller products, including:
Celle chair: Made from 33 percent recycled content, it's 99 percent recyclable and can be disassembled in less than five minutes for efficient recycling.
Teneo storage: Also up to 99 percent recyclable, the line is made from 24 percent to 43 percent recycled materials. Also, each piece is composed of a mix of three primary elements that can be recombined in numerous ways allowing users to repurpose the product—which presumably lengthens its life.
By 2010, Herman Miller is aiming for 50 percent of the company's total sales to be attributed to C2C-designed products.
And Mr. Wing is happy to report the team is on track to achieve that goal.
“We aren't always as successful as we want to be,” he says, “but we know what we are here for: to champion design for the environment.” –Sarah Fister Gale