Sustainability starts with the triple bottom line; initiatives must be good for the planet, good for people and good for the economy, says Oliver Cripps, Herman Miller’s Sustainability Manager
As the world’s attention turns to environmental initiatives in light of COP26, an increasing number of businesses are looking to consider where they can make more fundamental changes in order to create a sustainable environment. As a part of this, companies are now making conscious design choices that align to their sustainability values.
At Herman Miller, 99% of RFT’s now ask about sustainability measures, demonstrating the importance of the issue for designers and manufacturers if they want to continue to be the chosen supplier. It is crucial to remember that sustainability starts with the triple bottom line; initiatives must be good for the planet, good for people and good for the economy.
Choosing the right design
Whether you’re a manufacturing and design business wanting to make products more sustainable or a business looking to buy such items, the starting point is to look at a product’s lifecycle assessments. These measure impact through the raw materials used, the impact during production, the use of the product and then end of life. From these assessments, businesses can get a clear measurement of carbon, water, and a range of other impact metrics.
Within these stages, raw materials and production are the two with the biggest impact to look out for – and they are also the stages that manufacturers have the most control over. Design responsibility for products doesn’t end at the point of sale: end of life plans are equally as important to consider from the start of the design process.
Many furniture and design businesses are now also trying to reduce the impact of their products by making them last longer, implementing a circular model that reduces the impact of products and materials by increasing the sharing, leasing, reusing, and recycling of existing materials. Furthermore, businesses are trying to include more recycled materials in the production of their furniture. For example, Herman Miller’s Aeron Onyx chair is made from ocean-bound plastic.
Ocean-bound plastic is plastic material that has not yet found its way into the ocean and is classified as ‘mismanaged waste’. That is, plastic that is not being collected, is unlikely to be collected, and found within 50 kilometres of a coastline. This approach not only eliminates coastal plastic, helping the planet and reducing waste for local people, but also offers local people employment opportunities by integrating them into the supply chain. This social impact is the multiplier effect, doing good for communities while also reducing the environmental impact of any product.
One of the most important things for office design in terms of modern sustainability is being able to understand consumer trends and how the business is measuring up against corporate goals. Businesses must respond to what the market is looking for, which means being innovative and leading the conversation.
However, many struggle to measure the impact of their sustainability decisions. While it is easy from a carbon or electricity usage perspective to quantify the impact on the business, with decisions like choosing sustainable products, it is more difficult to quantify exactly how much of an impact it is having on consumer motivations to choose one business over another.
From a B2B perspective, it is easier to determine how much impact sustainability measures have, because businesses often have criteria which need to be met before entering into a partnership or contract, allowing them to get a tangible and real time feel how they are measuring up to expectations.
Another way to measure ROI of sustainability choices – and one that is absolutely key – is the impact on employees. The workplace and the design of the office has a huge impact on employee wellbeing, so providing an environment that is safe and is representative of the company’s wider sustainability goals is only ever going to be a good thing.
Sustainable business choices
From a design point of view, substituting problematic materials can be tricky, but organisations should be doing all they can to contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future for all. Gone are the days when sustainability is seen as something ‘different’. There is a greater recognition that sustainability is equally as important as other measures of design success, such as cost, time, and durability.
While choosing products for the office is just one small part of a sustainability initiative, it is small steps that come together to make an overall difference to the planet – and it will only have a positive impact on customer and employee retention too.
Image by Pexels, Trang Doan