Steelcase Inc. aims to be PVC-free by 2012.
The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture maker announced June 13 that it will eliminate PVC from edge banding first and be free of the material in time for its centennial celebration.
``We want to bring the entire supply chain along with us,'' said environmental director Allan Smith in a June 16 telephone interview. ``This is where the market is heading, and we all need to be there. It's a goal that we feel we can achieve.''
A Vinyl Institute spokesman questioned whether Steelcase's decision takes into account recent studies favorable to PVC.
``Our question is whether [office furniture makers] have updated their own environmental assessments with the data from the new reports,'' said Allen Blakey, public affairs director for the Arlington, Va.-based trade group.
Other companies and manufacturers have elected to use PVC, he said, but those decisions are not accompanied by news releases. Announcements like the one from Steelcase get attention, but may not reflect the overall vinyl use trend, he added.
Steelcase has been developing its initiatives for the past few years, but laid down some specific dates during a presentation at the office furniture industry's annual NeoCon show, held June 13-15 in Chicago.
The firm's other environmental targets include a wood-purchasing policy requiring suppliers to provide lumber only from forests certified as sustainable plots.
Steelcase said it is working with McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to assess its larger global impact and has partnered with the University of Michigan Center for Sustainable Systems to research possible improvements to its global environmental footprint.
The mandate moving away from PVC affects not only the edge banding, which provides a decorative trim on furniture, but also elements of the firm's popular chairs and even its entire Designtex unit, which uses vinyl on vertical panels.
``We've got a long-term goal to try and give our companies a chance to come up with viable alternatives,'' Smith said.
Steelcase's announcement is similar to competitor Herman Miller Inc.'s ``design for the environment'' principle, which requires all new products to meet specific ``green production'' guidelines.
That has meant that chairs such as the Cella, introduced at NeoCon, use alternative materials for armrests, which previously relied on vinyl.
While Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller has not targeted a specific date to halt PVC use, it has eliminated the material from all new products introduced in the past two years, said spokesman Mark Schurman. Like Steelcase, it also is seeking a replacement material for vinyl used in edge bands.
PVC is a good material choice during its lifetime of use on furniture products, Smith said. But the company is worried about the impact on the environment from production of the raw material, which relies on vinyl chloride monomer, and about product disposal.
The Steelcase announcement comes even as the Vinyl Institute has been making headway with other industries in repairing the resin's image. A draft report of a study by the U.S. Green Building Council, released in December, shows no evidence that PVC is consistently worse than alternatives.
The long time frame the office furniture industry has set on its environmental initiatives gives the Vinyl Institute and PVC suppliers time to present a full story on the material.
``2012 is a ways off. The studies are on our side,'' Blakey said. ``We think all of these companies are trying to do the right thing, but we hope they're looking at all the good, peer-reviewed studies on PVC.''
It is not just a matter of changing minds within companies like Steelcase, though, Smith said. The company is the world's biggest seller of office furniture, and has to respond to global market forces.
``It's a market force driven by our customers,'' he said.