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  • Writer's pictureKate Bachner

Company Spotlight: Steelcase


Steelcase's Sustainability Strategy In Its Own Words



For this month's Company Spotlight we are going to do things a little differently. We are not going to write about a company, but rather give the company the floor to explain its own strategy for sustainability. Steelcase, a leader in eco-conscious furniture design, has been challenging themselves to rethink traditional ways of building in service of the environment. We are honored to give them a platform to pass along their knowledge and practices that they've developed for over a century. You can find Steelcase's sustainability credentials at steelcase.ecomedes.com


Excerpted from 'Rethinking Design, Sustainably' by Steelcase


"Responsibility is our moral and ethical obligation to society, to think about the environment in everything we create, consume, or use," explains Michael Held, Steelcase vice president of global design. "We are constantly evolving how we develop products because there are hidden costs to us as a society behind every innovation."  



Courtesy: Steelcase


Responsibility is not a new consideration in design, but adopting the practice of continuously looking at the impact of each decision - big and small - leads to new discoveries. Steelcase designers, engineers, scientists, operations and more are pushing toward continuous improvements in a sustainable product design process. As they learn, they're deeply committed to sharing new ideas or approaches that can help us collectively make a difference.    


“Our overall sustainability strategy is three pronged,” says Mary Ellen Mika, Steelcase director of sustainability. “Reduce our carbon footprint, design for circularity and choose and use materials responsibly. All of the day-to-day choices we make need to be consistent with, and make progress toward these three goals.”

 

Mika leads a team responsible for setting, measuring, and achieving sustainability goals. They work cross-functionally on a long-term journey that requires weighing each design and engineering decision with robust guidelines.


Courtesy: Steelcase

 

Since 1912, sustainability has been part of the foundational values at Steelcase and woven through the product development process. “Our experience is that doing good for the planet is also good for business, which is why we’re sharing what we’re learning with our suppliers, partners, and other stakeholders,” notes Allan Smith, Steelcase Americas president and chief product officer. “It creates value through new opportunities for innovation and streams of revenue, which allows us to better serve customers making business decisions around this issue, and, at the same time, benefit the greater global community,” says Smith.

 

So, what does this look like? How are long-established processes, like those used to design products, being reimagined in the climate era?

 

Reduce Our Carbon Footprint

 

“Using the least amount of material necessary is just smart design,” notes Held. While many of us grew up in the age of abundance – bigger homes, cars, meals – Held points out earlier generations were more frugal because of greater scarcity. This led to innovative ways of using resources which can be applied today. “Whether it’s a product, a building or even when designing a city, it takes a different mindset to create something highly functional using fewer materials or resources,” says Held.


Courtesy: Steelcase, CarbonNeutral Chair Collection from left to right: Steelcase Series 2, Leap, Think, Steelcase Karman, Gesture, Steelcase Series 1, Amia

 

Steelcase product development teams begin by asking: How can we achieve the same or better performance than products currently on the market using less materials to reduce our carbon footprint? Held says cross-functional teams are assessing the weight of products more than ever. Steelcase Karman is the outcome of this approach – weighing just 29 pounds, it required new thinking – design, engineering and materiality – to create one of the lightest task chairs in the industry that’s also incredibly strong. In Europe, teams working on the Migration SE height-adjustable desk figured out how to make it lighter than most other desks, yet just as durable. Each time teams innovate, they carry that learning forward to the next project and challenge others to think differently.


Reducing our carbon footprint means that we reduce our embodied carbon, which includes the total greenhouse gas emissions created through the entire lifecycle of a product. This includes everything from acquiring materials, manufacturing, transportation and end of use. But the largest contributor is when materials are transformed into product parts.

 

Choose + Use Materials Responsibly

 

The “right” material used to be mostly about purity and performance – creating a new object without flaws. “Customers and designers care about quality and durability, and also value materials with more recycled content – ones that are easily recycled and safe for people,” says Mika. “So our goal of choosing and using materials responsibly means exploring options that might not have been considered or available in the past.”


Courtesy: Steelcase

 

The Steelcase Flex Perch Stool is the outcome of exploring a new type of plastic with BASF, made from a diverted waste stream generated during electronic production. The material performs like virgin plastics, is 100% recyclable and keeps electronic waste out of landfills.

 

Knots, contrasting streaks and other natural markings used to be discarded. But today, more sustainable materials celebrate nature’s unique “imperfections”. Sustainably - sourced woods and naturally – derived fabrics contribute to a more regenerative approach to making products. “Our teams are exploring fast growing natural materials such as flax and hemp combined with organic binding agents,” says Held. “These fibers are inherently circular and grown without much water. By experimenting, we find new ways of creating.”

 

Design for Circularity

 

Designing for circularity is an inherently complex goal. It’s a new way to think about quality. Instead of only focusing on how a product performs during its life, all parts of the product’s lifecycle are considered – including how much energy is used to build it, how it’s shipped and what happens at the end of use.


Courtesy: Steelcase

 

“Too many products that could get recycled don’t,” notes Held. “Some products are theoretically recyclable, but effectively they aren’t. So we focus on designing for easy disassembly, which makes it easier to repair or refurbish and extend the use of the product, and to get it into the right recycling stream if necessary.”

 

Steelcase Flex Active Frames, for example, is designed so it needs just one simple tool to make assembly and disassembly faster. Many of the parts click together and don’t need a tool at all. In Europe, Steelcase Flex Active Frames is designed to be shipped in a flat pack with optimized parcel logic which groups everything you need together in one unit for easier installation. Depending on the size, it can take just 20 minutes or less to put together. Flat boxes means more products ship at once, lowering carbon emissions. When you need to move it, you can take the pieces apart. When its useful life is over, easy disassembly means it’s more likely to be recycled.

 

Sustainable design requires team thinking across all aspects of a product's lifecycle and working with a broad range of partners to find new technologies, materials and processes. Sometimes what feels like a small change can have a huge collective impact. It's a journey of ongoing experimentation, learning, - and being open to sharing - so we can make a difference. Together.  



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