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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2002 : Eco-Intelligence

The Anatomy of a Transformation Herman Miller's journey to sustainability with MBDC.

by william mcdonough and
michael braungart

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, we’re convinced that thoughtful design mirroring the safe, regenerative productivity of nature—what we call Cradle-to-Cradle Design™—can 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 of value.

The story of Herman Miller’s “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 industry.

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 Miller’s furniture designers have included the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, and many of the company’s creations are in the collections of major museums, including New York’s Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art. In Europe, Herman Miller is revered as one of the world’s preeminent furniture design firms.

The company’s 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 rosewood—a rare tree harvested from tropical forests—in its signature Eames chair. At the same time, we began discussions on workplace and product design with Herman Miller’s 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 Week’s 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 Miller’s leaders, however, understood that the company’s impact extended well beyond its home in western Michigan through supply and distribution chains that literally span the world. Continuing to pursue the company’s 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 company’s 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 company’s new objective was the development of a “protocol for sustainability” to measure environmental performance.

“As a company,” said former advisory team member Keith Winn, “we wanted to approach this holistically. We didn’t 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 company’s 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 chair’s materials back to their sources and analyzed the product’s chemistry, an effective strategy for integrating MBDC’s 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 Miller’s engineers, for example, were well informed about materials performance, but had very little knowledge about the composition of those materials. Similarly, the company’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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. It’s something you can put some data against. You can track progress. And it’s something that an engineer can understand.”

Engaging the Supply Chain

Once Herman Miller understood MBDC’s 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 MBDC’s Protocol. MBDC, meanwhile, continues to work with Herman Miller’s 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 company’s 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 suppliers.

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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 MBDC’s 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, “what’s 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 Miller’s 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 MBDC’s “product of service” idea, leasing the service of products rather than selling them and developing effective means for their reclamation and reuse.

We’d 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 Virginia’s 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 Miller’s 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 Miller’s, is not simply innovation for innovation’s 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

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