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[greenyes] Design for the Environment - Offices and Carpets


March 3, 2005

Beyond Recycling: Manufacturers
Embrace 'C2C' Design
March 3, 2005; Page B1
With its slightly curved back and adjustable armrests, Steelcase Inc.'s
"Think" chair doesn't look particularly radical, but it embodies a lot of
forward thinking by the nation's biggest office furniture maker. The $900
chair can be disassembled with basic hand tools in about five minutes and
most of its parts are recyclable.
The "Think" chair is Steelcase's first product to meet a design ideal being
embraced by a growing number of furniture, carpeting and other manufacturing
companies: using parts that can be recycled several times, and manufactured
in ways least harmful to the environment. The goal is to abandon the
cradle-to-grave path of man-made products that end up in garbage dumps and
instead make them C2C, or "cradle to cradle."
At the forefront of such thinking are architect William McDonough and his
chemist partner, Michael Braungart. The pair's 2002 book, "Cradle to Cradle:
Remaking the Way We Make Things" has become a manifesto for a growing group
of "green" industrial designers. Mr. McDonough says many designers feel
challenged to make better products. "We want clean production that's based
on a regenerative technology," he says. "Pollution is a symbol of design
For example, the "Think" chair is made at factories that buy "green," or
renewable power, from sources like wind turbines and solar panels, says
Allan Smith, director of environmental strategy for Steelcase. All known
carcinogens were eliminated in the manufacturing process and each part is
stamped with icons showing how they should be sorted for recycling. The
chair is 99% recyclable.

Steelcase's 'Think' chair is 99% recyclable. It's made without benzene,
lead, mercury or solvents.

Companies making more ecologically friendly products aren't just trying to
be fashionable. Consumers are increasingly seeking environmentally safe
products and are sometimes willing to pay a premium for them. Because the
makers avoid harmful substances, they are less likely to injure workers
during the manufacturing process. And the economics of green design are
changing, too. The recent run-up in the price of oil, for instance, has
pushed up the price of petrochemicals and made it more cost-effective to
recycle old synthetic material.
The U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington nonprofit coalition of
builders, manufacturers and public agencies that promotes construction of
energy-efficient buildings, estimates that $5.8 billion was spent on
green-building initiatives last year, a 34% increase over 2003.
Yet going green isn't an easy business decision. Much discussion has taken
place within these companies about whether environmentally safe products can
be commercially viable. Some manufacturers have decided to start with
products that already are particularly profitable, giving them latitude to
Shaw Industries Inc., the nation's biggest carpet maker, was initially
skeptical about the economics behind the cradle-to-cradle concept, says
Steven Bradfield, head of environmental products for the Dalton, Ga., unit
of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. In the past five years, however, his firm has
found ways to recycle old carpet retrieved from its own customers. The
recycled material is now cheaper than an equivalent amount of new raw
Shaw has redesigned its $150-million-a-year business of carpet tiles,
typically used to cover large commercial spaces. Its entire carpet tile
business is now made of material that can be recycled. In addition, the
company now guarantees buyers that it will recycle all carpet squares, and
an 800-number is stamped on the back of each tile for customers to call to
have the tiles picked up. In the past, the cost of discarding old squares in
garbage dumps was hidden in the cost of new carpet. Companies like Shaw that
have become converts "will quietly adopt this as a basic business practice,"
says Mr. Bradfield, adding that his firm is looking for ways to extend the
concept to other product lines like broadloom carpets.
Steelcase, too, is looking to expand the concept to its other products. It's
begun to change its buying practices, for example, selecting wood for desks
that comes from tree farms that practice sustainable-harvesting techniques,
Mr. Smith says.
Advocates of the green approach say it forces manufacturers to find out
what's in the materials they use. Office design company Herman Miller Inc.
now asks all its vendors to submit exact specifications and chemical
ingredients of the materials they supply.
"If a company won't give us their secret formulas, then we won't do any new
business with them," says Scott Charon, head of new products at the Zeeland,
Mich., company. He says a couple of suppliers balked initially, but have
since changed their minds. Products that meet the strict "cradle to cradle"
protocol currently account for only about 5% of sales, a figure the company
plans to increase to 50% by 2010 as it designs new products and redesigns
old ones.
Peter Anderson, President
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Ph: (608) 231-1100
Fax: (608) 233-0011
Cell: (608) 698-1314
eMail: anderson@no.address

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