|Albert Einstein said
the world will not evolve past its current state of crisis
by using the same thinking that created the situation.
He was right, of course. Yet we would hasten to add that, ultimately,
new ways of thinking reveal their true value in new ways of
doing things. This is especially true in the world of design.
The proof of intelligent design theory is intelligent design
practice, the hands-on, practical application of emerging ideas.
Over the past decade, design for sustainability has made great leaps
from theory to practice. Across a broad range of human industry,
designers have begun to transform the making of things into a force
for positive change. Indeed, were convinced that thoughtful
design mirroring the safe, regenerative productivity of naturewhat
we call Cradle-to-Cradle Designcan create materials,
products and manufacturing systems that are not simply sustainable,
but yield sustaining growth in economic prosperity, ecological intelligence
and social value. In this ongoing series of case studies we are
exploring the ways in which innovative companies working with our
design consultancy, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC),
are putting intelligent design to work in pursuit of this wide spectrum
The story of Herman Millers journey to sustainability
is an especially good example of the step-by-step process of integrating
ecologically intelligent design into business practice. From hiring
dedicated staff to pursue a new design protocol to engaging its
supply chain in materials assessment, the Michigan-based furniture
company is modeling a comprehensive, long-term commitment to sustaining
A Culture of Leadership
Herman Miller is no stranger to leadership. In January, Forbes magazine
once again selected the company for its Platinum 400
list of the Best Big Companies in America. The company is also a
leader in innovative design. Herman Millers furniture designers
have included the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, and many of the
companys creations are in the collections of major museums,
including New Yorks Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art.
In Europe, Herman Miller is revered as one of the worlds preeminent
furniture design firms.
The companys economic and aesthetic strength is matched by
its active role in the sustainability movement. In 1992 it created
an internal working group, the Environmental Quality Action Team,
which involves more than 300 employees from all areas of the company
working to improve environmental performance. Herman Miller has
also been deeply involved in the work of industry groups such as
the U.S. Green Building Council and Market Transformation to Sustainability.
When the idea of sustainability was just beginning to emerge in
the early 1980s, Herman Miller was already engaged in exploring
issues of indoor air quality and sustainable forestry. In 1984 it
won wide public acclaim with its decision to forego the use of rosewooda
rare tree harvested from tropical forestsin its signature
Eames chair. At the same time, we began discussions on workplace
and product design with Herman Millers leaders that led, in
1993, to the construction of The GreenHouse, a 295,000-square-foot
factory and office building near its headquarters in western Michigan.
The GreenHouse provides an urbane, pleasant environment
for all employees; copious fresh air and sunlight; easy access between
administrative and manufacturing staff; and natural features such
as wetlands and swales that purify storm water run-off and provide
habitat for local birds, flowers and grasses. The result: a measured
increase in productivity, a measured increase in the degree of job
satisfaction and a measured array of positive social and ecological
impacts. In fact, the building won Business Weeks first Good
Design is Good Business award for its documented impacts on
the top and bottom line.
Embracing Materials Assessment
Many companies might have stopped there, satisfied that they had
created visible evidence of their concern for the environment. Herman
Millers leaders, however, understood that the companys
impact extended well beyond its home in western Michigan through
supply and distribution chains that literally span the world. Continuing
to pursue the companys commitment to sustainability, they
reasoned, required a thorough knowledge of the materials that went
into Herman Miller furniture, as well as a reliable, coherent way
to measure their environmental performance. This kind of analysis
is just what the McDonough Braungart Design Protocol offers.
Once Herman Miller decided to develop guidelines for selecting materials,
the company did so energetically. It initiated an ongoing, long-term
engagement with MBDC, beginning with a one-year discovery
project. Herman Miller dedicated senior staff to act as a core advisory
team (Advance Projects, Keith Winn; Engineering, Tom Niergarth;
Materials Research, Bill Dowell; Purchasing, Dean Prince; Environmental
Affairs, Paul Murray; Finance, Jim Krol; Marketing, Huda Bajouwa)
to assist with the process of integrating Cradle-to-Cradle Design
with the companys product development process and design culture.
This interdisciplinary team represented key sectors of the company
that would analyze and implement new measures recommended by MBDC
staff: materials assessment and selection, engagement of the supply
chain, the hiring of dedicated staff and the translation of design
goals throughout the Herman Miller community.
When the project began, Herman Miller already had in place a highly
disciplined system for product development that required engineers
and designers to measure their success against cost, performance
and marketing targets. The companys new objective was the
development of a protocol for sustainability to measure
As a company, said former advisory team member Keith
Winn, we wanted to approach this holistically. We didnt
want to just develop a single product, we wanted to totally integrate
the measurement of environmental performance into everything we
do in the product development cycle.
Herman Miller and MBDC began by deconstructing the Aeron
chair, one of the companys top performers.
We consider the Aeron chair to be a very good product, one
with great environmental criteria, said Winn. But we
wanted to take it apart and go entirely back through our supply
chain and figure out what it took to make it, what it was made out
of, and use the MBDC assessment process to help us see in a much
more detailed way what the performance of the chair was.
As the team traced the chairs materials back to their sources
and analyzed the products chemistry, an effective strategy
for integrating MBDCs sustainable design criteria began to
emerge. The project team first learned that gathering and using
information on materials would be ineffective unless the process
was built into the organizational framework of the company. Herman
Millers engineers, for example, were well informed about materials
performance, but had very little knowledge about the composition
of those materials. Similarly, the companys purchasing agents
were quite skilled at securing materials at target price levels,
but had little experience assessing data on the environmental performance
of product ingredients. But with full-time, skilled staff dedicated
to gathering and assessing materials, MBDC recommended, Herman Miller
could effectively implement new sustainable design criteria.
The core advisory group agreed that there were critical links missing
in Herman Millers staffing and began to assemble what would
become known as the Design for Environment team (DFE). A chemical
engineer would incorporate findings from MBDC assessments into an
evolving materials database. A purchasing agent would act as a conduit
and data source between the supply chain and Herman Millers
entire purchasing team, creating a coherent communication network
that would transform information into profitable opportunities and
consistent procurement choices throughout the company.
As the DFE team took shape, its original leader, Fred Pettinga,
began to work with MBDC to clarify how its protocol for materials
assessments would influence new product design. Pettinga, a senior
engineer with years of service in product development, wanted to
tailor the MBDC protocol into an actionable program
for Herman Millers engineers. I wanted to be sure,
he said, that there was a good link between the assessment
process and an engineer working on a new product design.
Working closely with Pettinga, MBDC tailored its design framework
and its chemical and material assessment methodology into a system
that could be used by Herman Millers designers and engineers.
The program included a multi-faceted assessment, which analyzes
materials for their human health and eco-toxicological effects,
recycle-ability, recycled content and/or use of renewable resources,
and product design for disassembly. The analysis was embedded in
a step-by-step approach to materials selection and product design.
After several months of meetings in which MBDC adapted their protocol
to fit Herman Millers needs, Pettinga began to feel that it
had become a remarkably useful tool. We got to a point,
he said, where we thought, Hey, this is a workable thing.
Its something you can put some data against. You can track
progress. And its something that an engineer can understand.
Engaging the Supply Chain
Once Herman Miller understood MBDCs material assessment process,
the DFE team and MBDC began to engage suppliers as partners in applying
new design criteria. Initially, the team selected more than 100
materials for MBDC to assess, masking the identity of the supplier
to guarantee confidentiality. Findings from the assessments were
logged onto a new database, which manipulated the data and provided
summary assessment results to engineers. These results were sent
to suppliers, as were requests to investigate possible alternatives
for problematic or questionable materials. Herman Miller has now
begun to ask suppliers submitting new materials to include with
their specifications an assessment of the material that meets the
human health and environmental relevance criteria of MBDCs
Protocol. MBDC, meanwhile, continues to work with Herman Millers
suppliers to answer questions about assessment results.
Engaging the supply chain in such an effort has become a source
of valuable information for Herman Miller. It has, first of all,
made the company a much better manager of the materials it uses
to assemble furniture. Getting a handle on supply chain issues
from an environmental standpoint, said Winn, also helped
us get a handle on the organization and prioritization of materials.
Now, for example, using the new database, Herman Miller can record
the volume and content of raw materials that it uses and distributes,
figures it had not previously tracked.
Data such as this makes Herman Miller a more effective and positive
participant in the materials market. Gathering information on suppliers
revealed that the company was simply using too many materials to
produce too many different kinds of products. To effectively manage
the flow of materials, said Winn, Herman Miller had to look at a
specific set of product ingredients and cultivate suppliers committed
to the companys objectives. This allows more control over
the life cycle impact of materials, builds a coherent, value-based
supply chain and creates the possibility of a wider, more positive
impact on the environment. In fact, by connecting with large businesses
that use the same product ingredients, Herman Miller hopes to create
a market that will influence a still wider spectrum of raw material
Growing Economic Value
It is still too early in the new product development process to
accurately measure its economic performance, but Herman Miller has
identified several compelling opportunities for creating value.
As we have seen, the streamlining and added coherence of the purchasing
process makes the company a more nimble player in the market. This
can have a very positive impact on purchasing power. A market platform
of large businesses using their collective purchasing power to acquire
more ecologically intelligent materials may also yield more competitive
pricing for those materials. On a smaller scale, choosing five suppliers
who have committed to meeting Herman Millers evolving needs
may prove more beneficial than searching for the best price among
30 different suppliers. Such a strategy creates a relationship that
benefits Herman Millers sustainability agenda as well as their
bottom line: The five committed suppliers are rewarded with a greater
volume of sales while Herman Miller benefits as the added volume
brings prices down.
Herman Miller is also confident that a product with strong environmental
performance does better in the marketplace, which means sales may
be higher and production costs potentially lower. And when a company
is producing a product that is environmentally sound, workers are
exposed to less harm, regulatory restraints become obsolete and
materials can maintain high value through many product life cycles.
Benefiting from the long-term value of materials is perhaps the
most significant economic gain provided by intelligent product design.
The new protocol, the materials database and Herman Millers
emerging ability to track the flow of product ingredients, said
Winn, allows the company to begin to predict what materials
might come back to industry for future use.
The key to the effective reclamation of materials, along with product
chemistry, is design for disassembly, an integral element of MBDCs
Cradle-to-Cradle Design strategy. Herman Miller previously had guidelines
in place that called for products to be designed for disassembly
with common materials, but it did not have real design rigor
around that, said Winn. Now, when Herman Miller works with
suppliers, whats going to happen to a material in the
future gets weighed more heavily than anything else.
To us, this is an area of exciting, untapped potential. Herman Miller
is currently implementing design for disassembly so that product
materials remain renewable, valuable commodities for industry, and
we applaud them heartily for this important transformation. We would
suggest, however, that a coherent strategy of reclamation embedded
in the design process could ensure that Herman Millers materials
remain long-term assets.
There are signs that the practice of reclamation is catching up
to its theoretical underpinnings. Many companies, for example, are
adopting MBDCs product of service idea, leasing
the service of products rather than selling them and developing
effective means for their reclamation and reuse.
Wed like to invite marketing experts and economists to join
us in developing strategies for the wide adoption of systems of
material reclamation. What might this look like for Herman Miller?
Richard Brownlee, professor of corporate accounting at the University
of Virginias Darden School of Business, has already begun
to discuss with Herman Miller economic models of cradle-to-cradle
systems. Our own work suggests that Herman Miller might profitably
begin to provide the service of custom-tailored office furniture,
leasing rather than selling its valuable materials. Its evolving
data systems for tracking product ingredients might also track distribution,
a key element in any reclamation strategy. Joining with other material
users, as it is already considering, Herman Miller might lead an
emerging pool of innovative companies in the creation of stable
markets for ecologically intelligent products and services. In fact,
it is Herman Millers intention to eventually share their experience
and knowledge industry-wide (e.g., with Steelcase, Haworth, Knoll
and others) believing that all of its competitors must share a similar
definition of quality if they are to move their industry
toward a more sustainable future.
Our goal, and Herman Millers, is not simply innovation for
innovations sake. Ultimately, we want ecologically intelligent
design to become so integral to product development and economic
systems, that it becomes known simply as good design. For all those
working for sustaining prosperity, the future will judge our leadership
on the road to such a world.
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart
are founders and principals of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry,
a consultancy leading a wide variety of companies into what the two
call the Next Industrial Revolution by implementing eco-effective
design and commerce strategies that will result in a future of sustaining
and long-term prosperity. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.