Hitting Targets: talking sustainability with Jane Abernethy

In conversation with Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale, about material and supply chain transparency and COVID-19’s impact on furniture waste.

With a new President of the United States already signalling a recommitment to the Paris Climate Agreement, environmental issues are encouragingly back to the top of many design and manufacturing agendas. For some companies it always had been, as evidenced by the recently released Corporate Social Responsibility Report from Humanscale, one of the leading designers and manufacturers of high-performance workplace products with an aim of making a net-positive impact on the Earth, for example boasting a global waste diversion rate was 86.9 per cent in 2019. Their comprehensive programs include being a founding member of the NextWave Initiative, adding transparency labels to 84 per cent of all products, and the elimination of Red List chemicals such as using polyurethane instead of vinyl and abolishing the use of Chrome 6.

Are offenders on the Red List the “bad guys” of the material chain that you can address, but are there others that are unfortunately just out of reach in an industrialized world? Meaning, are there other materials that should be prosecuted but are currently untouchable?

Not exactly, especially in North America. The Red List which we reference is the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) Red List, but there are several different authoritative lists that you could also look at: California’s Prop 65 or in Europe the Substances of Very High Concern List. There are different lists with a lot of commonalities, but they overlap imperfectly. Where they don’t overlap is where material scientists, toxicologists, industrial hygienists and other folks involved in pulling together the list may or may not agree a hundred percent on every single topic, or they review the science differently or have slightly different values. But one thing I’ve not usually seen is having toxicologists ask manufacturers “Can you do this?” before they put it on a list. They’re usually looking at the effect on the human body or the ecosystem and then identifying those chemicals of high concern.

One exception is the Reach Regulation by the European Chemicals Agency that does reach back to industry and the way of regulating those substances of very high concern is done with feedback from industry. The substance may still end up on the list, but the way of regulating it is tempered a little bit. The Living Future Institute may make exceptions to the Red List and you would see those showing up on declare labels highlighted in yellow because an exception has been made. If the case is that the industry really cannot make that change it’ll still show up. One example might be window shades: certain code requirements require a certain level of flammability that can only be achieved with antimony. Then you have a manufacturer in that situation where they are legally required to put that chemical in but it is a Red List ingredient that will show up the ILFI declare label, but it’ll be yellow because it’s an exception being made for that situation.

If you were an assassin but only had one bullet, which ingredient from the Red List would you eliminate completely? Meaning which one is doing the most damage?

 It would probably not be a chemical. It might be more the mentality of “business as usual.” It is hard to pick out one type of chemical because there are so many ways in which they can play out: some are bad because they are so ubiquitous and found everywhere; some are just extremely toxic. Some build up in our bodies over time and can be quite harmful and some are a lot more acute. I’m not sure which priority to pick there.

Okay then, if we shifted the focus and made it about the manufacturing process, what should be put in the crosshairs?

One thing that comes to mind is single-use plastic. While itself not inherently toxic, it is just used so often without a lot of thought as to what’s going to happen to it next. It’s not that all plastic is bad. It’s just that we don’t manage it well and so it just ends up being everywhere and getting into a lot of places where it shouldn’t be.

The Smart Ocean chair, launched in 2018, is an inventive adaption of the Diffrient Smart chair that incorporates almost two pounds of fishing nets extracted from the ocean. Based on the success of this chair, Humanscale is planning to develop another product that leverages this design model for cleaner oceans.

Humanscale is one of dozens of commercial interior furniture companies (as a walk-through at NeoCon would attest), so while achieving the coveted Living Product Challenge Certification is admirable, if you are the only company doing it, what effect would it really have on the environment? What will it take to elevate the CSR of the entire industry?

This is a good question. The way I see it, when we can do something like publish thorough third-party verified transparency labels, we show that it can be done. While a high bar of sustainability, it sends a signal is that this is possible to do. Where customers may have asked in the past for transparency and material ingredients and been told that this is not possible, that supply chains won’t allow it, that the industry isn’t set up like that, then Humanscale comes along and shows it is possible. Whether we’re in the room or not, it changes the conversation from “can you do it” to “please do it.”

We are not one of the major players in the entire furniture industry, but we publish an outsized portion of transparency labels, [and have now seen] a number of our competitors start to publish labels as well – there’s now one who has almost as many labels as we do – and it’s really been exciting to see that, and we did were able to influence some of those conversations so that customers felt they could ask manufacturers for more, and manufacturers often do step up once they’re being asked to.

A lot of Humanscale’s efforts seem to be focused on improving the environmental effects of the material chain in production, such as removing Red List ingredients. But how circular are the efforts? How involved is Humanscale in end-of-product-life scenarios, which addresses the issue of “f-waste,” or furniture waste? I remember hearing how stamping a collection phone number on the bottom of one of your chair lines didn’t work so well.

That was an interesting interaction. It made us take a step back and say, “Clearly there’s something we’re not understanding here.” If we just say “bring it back to us” that obviously doesn’t work. When you stop and look at the whole situation for just a moment, it seems clear that when somebody is setting up a space, they are co-ordinating with all the different manufacturers that they need to get those goods from, ordering the exact materials, checking with installers. But when someone is decommissioning a space, they don’t have a similar plan in place to leave the space with that same intensity as when it was set up. Everything is just seen as goods that need to leave and there isn’t that level of attention as when you’re trying to receive those goods.

There are several different groups who deal with this in better ways, like donate the material locally to not-for-profits, or find a way to recycle, depending on how municipalities recycle different materials. Worst case is if anything is leftover it would end up going to landfill but at least you have the least amount of material going as possible. We’ve been actively trying to make those connections and support folks in decommissioning spaces as much as possible. It means we’re not looking at our own product as an individual item but instead part of a larger system.

With offices staying closed or downsizing around the country, the issue of f-waste is intensifying as it leaves tonnes of unused office furniture facing the prospect of going into landfills, costing millions and harming the environment in the process. How is Humanscale adjusting to the effects a post-COVID work environment may have on commercial furniture?

I’ve been hearing from clients that although they are downsizing how many people are in the space by having folks work from home, I haven’t been hearing of them getting rid of furniture that they already have, partly because it’s still so uncertain that who knows what happens one year from now, maybe you will still need it. There’s still it seems enough uncertainty that people are not making drastic decisions.

The office in the next few years could be a very different thing. With people working from home and ordering in a more individual way then you could end up needing more packaging for deliveries and protecting products: if you deliver broken product then it’s immediately going to landfill and all of that is a waste of resources which is very unsustainable. We’ve been talking with our operations team about how to make sure we have the right sizes of boxes that are not much larger than they need to be, that have enough protection but not overkill. It does take a bit of a balancing act and I think something like that could end up being more impactful.

Another thing that comes to mind, wrapping this back to that initial part of the conversation, is that although people may not be thinking about the material ingredients going into the products, they are now in your home and of course with wear and tear particles get in the air and we ingest them and they do eventually affect our health. So I think when something is going into our home we may care a bit more about what ingredients are being used to make it, and want to have something that doesn’t have toxins in it that’s going to be around all the time.

To hear the complete conversation, including a wider discussion on how issues such as ethical human labour fit into the equation of responsible sustainability, listen to the Bevel podcast on our website or any of the popular streaming platforms.