HermanMiller’s Design for Environment (DfE) Product Assessment Tool – The Case of the Mirra Chair
|Region(s)||Zeeland, Michigan (USA)|
|In domains||Office Furnishings, Reuse of Materials|
HermanMiller’s Design for Environment (DfE) Product Assessment Tool evaluates progress towards ‘cradle-to-cradle’ products.
In the cradle-to-cradle system, the goal is to design products made entirely from a combination of biological and technical nutrients. “Biological nutrients” are safe and healthy materials that can create food for eco-systems across their life cycle and “technical nutrients” are materials or products that can be recycled continuously and safely into new materials or products. The cradle-to-cradle system was developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart and their firm, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), has developed the tools needed to evaluate progress towards cradle-to-cradle products.
Since the 1950’s, Herman Miller has had a corporate culture tradition that nourished environmental stewardship. During the 1990’s, discussions with William McDonough led Herman Miller to decide to establish a Design for Environment (DfE) program in order to meet the cradle-to-cradle challenge. The first piece of furniture to be designed from the ground-up using the cradle-to-cradle concept and enter the marketplace was the Mirra chair.
The DfE initiative forms part of HermanMiller’s broader Perfect Vision goal, which is to be a totally sustainable company by the year 2020. This will require it to have no landfill, no hazardous waste, and no air or water emissions; it will also require the company to purchase 100% of its energy from renewable sources, and to have all its buildings achieve at least a minimum of Silver LEED certification. For its products, it hopes to have 100% of its products designed using the DfE Assessment Tool, including both new and existing products.
The DfE initiative has resulted in positive environmental impacts at no cost at the product level. Some additional resources were required to increase the environmental expertise of the company and to obtain the services of the MBDC consulting firm.
Designing products with consideration for their environmental impact has been a central corporate strategy at HermanMiller. In 1989, an Environmental Quality Action Team (EQAT) was established by a group of employees at HermanMiller to set environmental priorities and goals for the company.
In the company's push towards greater sustainability, it decided to further its knowledge of the materials that formed part of its furniture products and to search for a reliable, coherent way to measure their environmental performance. It engaged MBDC in a one-year "discovery" project in order to assist with the process of integrating cradle-to-cradle design with the company's product development process and design culture. HermanMiller dedicated senior staff to act as a core advisory team to assist with this process, whose members represented key sectors of the company that would analyze and implement new measures recommended by MBDC staff: materials assessment and selection, supply chain management, human resources, and corporate communications.
In the discovery project, Herman Miller and MBDC analyzed the Aeron chair, one of the company's top performing products. During this process, the advisory team realized that there were critical links missing in the company’s staffing and began to assemble what would become known as the Design for Environment team (DfE). The DfE team would include a chemical engineer to incorporate findings from MBDC assessments into an evolving materials database and a purchasing agent to strengthen the information flow between suppliers and the company’s purchasing team.
The advisory team wanted to tailor the MBDC process to ensure that there was a good link between the assessment process and an engineer working on a new product design. With further work, MBDC tailored its design framework and its chemical and material assessment methodology into a system that could be used by HermanMiller's designers and engineers. This system would used eventually to develop sustainable aspects of the Mirra chair.
Mirra was successful insofar as employing the cradle-to-cradle principles, but was not an ideal cradle-to-cradle product (it achieved a score of 80%). For complex products such as chairs, the 100% cradle-to-cradle goal is a stretch, particularly when there is a lack of eco-materials in the market. The greatest challenges were in the use of materials with recycled content and the use of material with a green chemistry composition.
Identifying the chemical constituents of the minor materials in a chair — typically plastics, colorants, and coating finishes — was exceptionally difficult. For plastics, constituents and formulations vary and industry standards do not exist as they do with metals. Meanwhile, manufacturers guard their formulations due to proprietary reasons.
Initial attempts to gather the data from suppliers failed. The suppliers simply did not respond to the company’s e-mails and faxes. HermanMiller realized that a much different approach would be required. It decided to develop closer relationships with its material suppliers, such as scheduling face-to-face meetings with over 200 members of its supply chain. At these meetings, HermanMiller explained the purpose of the data collection, how the data would be used, and that material purchases were contingent upon suppliers providing the data. Afterwards, nearly all of the suppliers provided the data on chemical constituents once the information was covered by nondisclosure agreements. In order to alleviate supplier concerns with confidentiality, HermanMiller assigned a chemical engineer to be the sole proprietor of confidential information.
The product design team required additional effort at first in learning how to incorporate environmental quality into product design.
The greatest weaknesses of the DfE Product Assessment Tool are the lack of any transparency
and independent validation of the cradle-to-cradle method. Claims for a specific product, therefore, cannot be verified by an independent party. In fact, it is impossible to full verify any
claims due the non-disclosure agreements with its suppliers.
Another challenge is for the company to fully capitalize its environmental achievements in the market for office furniture.
By incorporating environmental considerations into the earliest stages of the design process, Herman Miller was able to minimize the costs of making changes during the development of the Mirra chair. A number of design changes were made, such as selecting an alternative material for the chair’s spine, increasing the level of recycled content in several components, eliminating all PVC components (such as in the armrests), and designing the chair for rapid disassembly using common tools. Total product costs did not increase as a result of these changes (some costs increased while others decreased).
The environmental attributes of the Mirra enhanced the chair’s market reception. The chair has won several prestigious prizes for its design.
The company has embraced the cradle-to-cradle concept and used the DfE Product Assessment Tool to measure the environmental performance of its products (100% by 2020). The practice has created some value for the company by streamlining the purchasing process. It has reduced the number of suppliers from thirty to five, keeping those suppliers who are committed to producing eco-intelligent materials. The five committed suppliers are rewarded with a greater volume of sales, and this added volume and security brings prices down.
HermanMiller believes that a product with strong environmental performance improves its competitive advantage. Higher sales may also lead to lower production costs per unit.
Herman Miller’s furniture competitors started to adopt the cradle-to-cradle principles a couple of years after the company began the practice.
Some current and previous clients of MBDC working to incorporate cradle-to-cradle concepts include:
American Fibers and Yarns
American Polymer Systems
City of Chicago
Design and Source
Ford Motor Company
Las Vegas Rock
Milliken & Co.
Mission Rubber Company
Pendleton® Woolen Mills
The Quantum Group
Volvo Car Corporation
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