Green Spot: Steelcase: Small Green Steps Go a Long Way

Furniture manufacturer finds team effort, corporate-wide commitment pay off in reduced cost and improved credibility.

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based furniture manufacturer Steelcase is generally acknowledged as being a leader in the field of sustainable manufacturing best practices, but how did they get there? With a team effort called Small Green Steps that spans across departments, Steelcase has taken great strides at involving everyone from employees to executives to suppliers and customers to participate in the effort to green their manufacturing process and offer better products to their customers. Even their Green Spot application was a team effort, says supply chain manager Mary Ellen Mika, who teamed with Angela Nahikian and David Rinard to coordinate the answers for the company's application, seen below.

IW: How are you addressing energy efficiency?

Mika: We have three primary projects in this area: The first is complete and it consisted of shrinking our manufacturing footprint by being able to produce the same amount of product using less floor space. Our electrical consumption was reduced from 253 million kilowatt hrs. to 116 million kilowatt hrs. for Steelcase in North America. This was a 53% reduction.

Our second project involves upgrading our plant lighting to more energy efficient lighting. We will save approximately $80,000 to $110,000 in electricity costs per plant and have successfully completed the conversion in two plants so far. Our 3rd project involves a "deep dive" into the energy usage within plants to looks for ways to reduce energy consumption. We have partnered with General Electric to develop a system of "energy kaizens" that will help us identify opportunities to reduce energy consumption.

IW: Have you evaluated renewable energy production or purchase?

Mika: We are in the process of evaluating both on-site and off-site renewable energy projects involving direct generation of electricity and also involving the continued purchase of renewable energy credits from wind, biomass, and other sources.

IW: How are you addressing facilities and equipment management?

Mika: Our facilities asset management and preventative maintenance program is tracked in our corporate SAP system. Our utilities records are kept on a custom Access data base. We are currently pursuing LEED-EB certification for our Global Headquarters building in Grand Rapids, Michigan and therefore will be identifying a recordkeeping system for appropriate data management. We are installing a remote metering system for building-specific tracking of energy usage to assist with our energy efficiency projects.

IW: How are you addressing waste reduction?

Mika: Our 2012 goal is to reduce our global environmental foot print by 25%. We have and continue to support a number of waste reduction and recycling initiatives. With Lean Manufacturing driving our business, one of the most powerful tools has been including environmentally-related waste as part of traditional Lean-targeted waste.

We are always looking for new and innovative ways to identify and reduce waste generation. Last year our Steelcase Wood Furniture plant established a scrap center which was able to improve veneer yield by 16% resulting in millions of dollars savings over the previous year. Wood scrap was reduced by almost half. We conduct quarterly waste audits (involving dumpster dives!) to identify and reduce waste generation. In the past year, these audits have resulted in the opportunity to recycle plastic bags with powder residue, PE foam, edge banding, install corrugated balers at each of our manufacturing facilities, and improve office paper recycling, reuse for wood waste, reuse for coal ash, and more. We are currently working on other initiatives to better manage food service waste, sawdust and packaging materials. We also utilize the Steelcase Environmental Partnership to assist with the recycling/reuse of office furniture no longer in use and participate in donations of miscellaneous office and manufacturing supplies (i.e., binders, cell phones, fabric, etc.) to area non-profit organizations, schools, etc.

IW: How are you addressing pollution prevention?

Mika: Our 2012 goal to reduce our global foot print by 25% contains a number of dimensions including energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, VOC emissions, waste, recycling, and water consumption. These goals are based on a 2006 base line year and are on top of the significant improvements we have already achieved. (41% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 95% reduction is air emissions, 54% reduction in water consumption, and 46% reduction in energy consumption).

Our materials chemistry process and life cycle analysis product design approach have allowed us the opportunity to design our products using materials and processes that are "eco-safe" or easily recyclable, therefore reducing our global environmental footprint. We partner with other areas of the company to seek opportunities that contribute to our overall footprint reduction, i.e., the use of bio-diesel fuels, water and energy conservation activities, and more. Our Small Green Steps program allows us the opportunity to educate, engage and inspire our employees, their families and our community to do their part in protecting our environment.

IW: How are you addressing supply chain management?

Mika: We're addressing SCM in these ways:

  • Consideration of purchasing decisions on life cycle analyses (LCAs) of products and processes.
  • Assessment/selection of suppliers to address international environmental and social responsibility criteria, with periodic 3rd party reviews of emerging market suppliers involved in environmentally-sensitive manufacturing processes.
  • Support of the Green Suppliers Network for select U.S. suppliers and Green Business Network for select Canadian suppliers more participation in these "lean and clean" initiatives.
  • Support of the development of a furniture industry Sustainability Assessment Standard for the office furniture industry to include requirements for supply chain social responsibility standards.

IW: Are you getting buy-in from both the C-suite and shop floor?

Mika: Yes! From executive level to the shop floor, we are pleased to see buy-in to our sustainability strategy. The evidence is the number of people who participate in various Small Green Step activities, the ideas generated from the shop floor, and the results we are seeing in reducing our global environmental footprint and re-defining how we develop our products.

IW: How do you see sustainability fitting into core business strategy?

Mika: Steelcase is committed to embedding sustainability in every aspect of our business. Such a commitment requires a strategic implementation plan, which we are well into executing.

It also requires a shift in thinking -- a redefinition of quality that embeds sustainable thinking into each phase of our product development, the processes we use, and the services we offer. At the same time, we recognize the need to be flexible in addressing and adjusting to the ever changing needs of our people and the communities where we serve.

We believe environmental literacy, research and continuous learning is essential to our work and to supporting the actions needed to deliver our plan. As a responsible global manufacturer, we believe a strong sustainable development plan is critical to competing in the global marketplace and to being a positive, restorative force in our global community.

IW: How, if at all, do you see the regulatory environment changing, and how will it impact your business?

Mika: One significant area of change in the regulatory environment is the growing use of voluntary incentive-based programs. When government couples enforcement with incentive, we see a much more powerful system that is achieving more results than enforcement alone could. In addition, with the globalization of the economy, we see the global regulatory world imposing significant change in the way business is conducted.

IW: How important is corporate branding in this day and age?

Mika: Brand identity is simply a mirror of the value a company delivers to its customers and the core values it embraces in its business practices. Customers are increasingly interested in understanding these two dimensions of value as they relate to sustainability. They are asking more questions and looking to dive deeper into the details. They are seeking congruency and proof that companies are doing what they say they are doing.

They expect authenticity in the message and in the ways companies are conducting themselves. We work to make our efforts transparent and easy to understand and welcome the opportunity to share the details of our strategies and progress as we work toward our stated goals. Every company must do this if they want to compete in the future marketplace.

IW: And how are you publicizing your efforts to reach out to value chain partners and consumers?

Mika: We use a variety of tools to communicate and share with our value chain partners and consumers. We have developed Continuing Education programs to share what we have learned with key customer audiences. We have electronic tools to communicate with our suppliers on a continuous basis. In addition, we hold customer and supplier conferences to explain our message and expectations.

IW: What are you the most proud of that you've accomplished so far, and why?

Mika: Through our work, and even through our mistakes, we are learning things that advance the science and practice of sustainability -- within our company and outside it. We are proud of our partners and suppliers. They continue to inspire us with their resourcefulness and willingness to seek new ways to deliver greater value to our customers and better our environment.

IW: What's the best piece of advice you can give to companies considering "getting with the program"?

Mika: Commit long term and understand that sustainability is an imperfect science. Commit to continuous learning and education across your corporation. Commit to building your business green from the inside out. The key word here is "commit." If you commit to an informed sustainability strategy it can be a catalyst for innovation in your business model as well as your product portfolio.


For more features like this, see Green Spot: Best Practices in Sustainable Manufacturing. To participate in IW's Green Spot leadership in manufacturing program, email IW Making Green Editor Brad Kenney to start the application process.
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