Herman Miller Inc.: Taking Sustainability to a New Level

Dec. 13, 2009
Company works environmental awareness into all aspects of manufacturing

Office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc. has built itself a reputation as a manufacturer that extends sustainability throughout its entire supply chain.

The Zeeland, Mich., IW 50 Best Manufacturer traces its history of environmental awareness back to the 1950s when founder D.J. DePree opened work areas to natural light by locating employees no more than 75 feet from a window.

In 1997, DePree's vision led the company to implement a product-design concept that requires its suppliers to help incorporate more environmentally friendly materials into the finished product. The company says it's difficult to measure whether the program has yielded significant investment returns from the purchase of higher-cost materials, but President and CEO Brian Walker says there's definitely a business case to be made for greener supply chains.

"Looking at the molecular level of chemicals in products, there are cases -- no doubt about it -- where we have to pay increased costs to get compounds and materials that are more environmentally sensitive," Walker says. "Now, we're very careful to say if we do that we have to be able to make those investments back in our products in either A, our customers value it enough to pay for it or B, find other savings to pay for those increased costs."

Herman Miller's sustainability program has included nearly 1,000 different suppliers over the past eight years, says Gabe Wing, manager for the company's Design for Environment team.

When the company began 12 years ago working with product and process design firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry LLC to obtain the firm's Cradle to Cradle environmental certification, most of the company's primary suppliers jumped on board because of their long-standing relationships with Herman Miller, says Kim Buckley, the company's director of supply management. But some of the other companies further up the supply chain, such as chemicals manufacturers that might produce materials used in plastic resins, weren't as willing because of proprietary concerns, Buckley says.

Herman Miller responded by telling suppliers that were reluctant to divulge their chemical ingredients that they would not receive new business from the company if they did not comply.

"Two material suppliers in the early 2000 era did not want to give us their chemical formulations, and we said that's fine but realize you're not going to get new business from us," Wing says.

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