Herman Miller’s Aeron chair has been a fixture in office spaces for nearly 30 years—a powerful statement of ergonomic elegance. Now the U.S. furniture company is capitalizing on that brand equity to make the case for sustainable design. As of September, the iconic Aeron chairs will be made with 2.5 pounds (1.1 kilograms) of plastic waste found near waterways.
As the top-seller in the company’s “performance seating” line, the Aeron makes a powerful platform: With greater sales volume comes greater environmental impact. “And as we think about demonstrating this use to others, to inspire others to use ocean-bound materials, what better chair to do it on?” says Bob Teasley, director, new product development, supply management at Herman Miller, Zeeland, Michigan, USA.
The amount of plastic trash flowing into the oceans every year is expected to nearly triple to 29 million metric tons by 2040, according to a 2020 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and think tank SystemIQ. Herman Miller projects that the redesigned Aeron will keep 150 tons of the stuff from making it to the oceans per year—equal to approximately 15 million single-use plastic water bottles. The move will also help the company meet its commitment to use at least 50 percent recycled material by 2030.
But first the company had to establish a supply chain to source the ocean-bound plastic material for manufacturing, Teasley says. Past editions of the Aeron had been produced using some reclaimed polyethylene terephthalate from plastic water bottles, but sourcing ocean-bound plastic waste presented a whole new challenge.
Rather than looking to its usual vendors, Herman Miller wanted to talk to organizations with the same environmental mission, Teasley says. That led the company to join NextWave Plastics, a consortium of multinational tech and consumer brands—including Dell, HP, Ikea and General Motors—committed to decreasing the volume of plastic litter entering the ocean. Through NextWave, Herman Miller’s team worked with coastal communities in India and Indonesia to harvest discarded plastic bottles and fishing nets that could be ground, washed, pelletized and sent to its plant. And that delivered another level of social impact.
“By working with coastal communities around the world to harvest ocean-bound plastic, we’re increasing demand, creating jobs and boosting economies,” says Teasley.
From there, the team pivoted to solving the next puzzle: how to produce the chair—without compromising design and performance. Customers weren’t likely to tolerate any missteps on a chair with a price tag starting at US$1,095.
Iterating its way through that took over a year of trial and error as the team sought to use the ocean-bound plastic for two of the chair’s major components: its black nylon frame and under-the-seat tilt covers.
“We’re working with a different material with similar properties and were trying to get it to work in the existing tooling,” Teasley explains.
In some cases, factory line tools had to be rebuilt and redesigned to accommodate the new material. And the team had to tweak some of its manufacturing processes, including run temperatures and the timing of different machinery. Herman Miller even brought in its own plastic supplier to consult and offer advice on its assembly line.
Switching up its production process to incorporate the new material at scale took about three and a half years. Now that the remade Aeron chair is available in its new black hue (chosen to mask color variation), Herman Miller plans to experiment with other colors and components—and leverage the ideas in other areas of its furniture portfolio. The company also hopes the project will serve as a proof-of-concept, Teasley says.
“It becomes a use case for ocean-bound plastic, demonstrating not only to ourselves, the internal Herman Miller team, but to the rest of the globe and rest of the marketplace,” he says.