Oliver Cripps, Sustainability Manager for Herman Miller, explains why upcycling ocean-bound plastics for use in offices is a logical extension of product life cycle planning.
COP26 has now been and gone, but the focus by companies to consider sustainability as a fundamental aspect of the way they do business remains critical in the path to reaching net zero. Across industries, firms are seeking to embed sustainable practices and values, and not just within their own operations, but throughout their supply chains too. The commitments range from using green sources of energy, giving new life to recycled materials or even ensuring the tools and equipment that businesses source come from companies with a commitment to sustainable practices and materials.
For designers and manufacturers in particular, sustainability is an issue that can make the difference between being the supplier of choice and being left behind. No step is too small to have an impact, so when it comes to ensuring sustainability factors are built into business practices, decisions and even offices, what do companies need to consider?
Sustainable by design
Sustainable initiatives should start with the triple bottom line – they must be good for people, the economy and planet.
Regardless of whether businesses are involved in the design or manufacturing of a product, or they are looking to buy a particular item, companies should start by looking at a product’s lifecycle assessment. These assessments are a measure of the environmental impact a product has throughout its life, from the raw materials used in development to the energy used in production and what happens to a product when it’s no longer needed. Understanding these assessments can help businesses to get a clear view of the overall impact products have on the climate.
The biggest climate impact in these assessments is likely to be seen in the raw materials used and in production – both are areas where designers have control to make a difference. But the responsibility for the environmental impact of these solutions doesn’t end at the point of sale. How product design influences the ways in which they can be dealt with at end-of-life is equally important for designers to consider. This includes the ability to recycle or even upcycle materials.
Design and manufacturing businesses are increasing efforts in this area to reduce the impact of their products and implement a circular model where waste is ultimately designed out. This includes measures such as making products last longer, as well as reducing the impact of the materials we use in furniture by sharing, reusing, leasing, and even using recycled materials. Arguably, sustainability is an issue that is no longer on the periphery of design decisions, and is an equally important measure of success as time, durability and cost.
One such example we have been pursuing at Herman Miller includes integrating ocean-bound plastic into products. According to the Next Wave initiative, a group of industry leaders collaborating on its use, ocean bound plastic is –waste material that is not collected, unlikely to be collected and found within 50 kilometres of the coast. The equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into the sea every minute, so measures like this have the potential to divert the equivalent of millions of plastic bottles away from the world’s oceans annually.
Businesses looking to purchase more sustainably-designed products should look to the NextWave Plastics consortium, which aims to dramatically decrease the volume of plastic waste entering the ocean through the first global network of ocean-bound plastic supply chains. According to the firm’s 2020 Annual Report, members of the consortium reported an over 70 per cent increase in the use of ocean-bound plastic compared to the previous year, and this number is only set to rise.
Keeping track of success
As more consumers switch on to the impact of climate change, businesses are responding by setting climate-focused corporate goals to demonstrate their sustainability credentials. Others try to actively lead their industries and the conversation around efforts to tackle climate change to keep in check with consumer trends.
Critical to these efforts is being able to measure the impact of sustainability decisions. Understanding the effect of sustainable directives on consumer motivations to choose a particular brand can be a challenging affair. However, calculating energy usage, including emissions created in production or processes, can be easily quantified, while the inclusion of tangible sustainability criteria in contracts can also make it easier to identify the role of sustainable measures in meeting B2B goals.
But another way businesses can measure the success of sustainable directives is by understanding the impact on their employees. According to a survey from IBM earlier this year, 71 per cent of job seekers want to work for companies who are environmentally sustainable, and two-thirds of the potential workforce are more likely to apply for and accept roles with environmentally and socially responsible organisations. To attract and retain talent, workplace design should also reflect a company’s wider sustainability goals, while also factoring in health and safety, accessibility, and other key considerations.
Making decisions like the products businesses use in their offices may simply seem as though its one small part of a company’s sustainability initiative, but together the overall impact of even small sustainability efforts like these can make a big difference to the future of our planet.