``Going green'' is no longer optional. The challenge is that this approach will demand changes in how people live, design products and operate businesses.
But the good news is that adopting sustainable business practices and creating environmentally responsible products can more than pay for itself while delivering positive results to the bottom line.
That was the message from sustainability experts who addressed a Chicago-area workshop June 26, co-organized by global design consultancy Brandimage and the Industrial Designers Society of America's Chicago Chapter.
The event, attended by about 45 people, took place in the Northbrook, Ill., headquarters of the firm previously known as Laga. Laga in early June expanded significantly via a merger with Paris-based design consultancy Desgrippes Gobe and the result is a globe-spanning business called Brandimage, backed by U.S. private equity, with nine offices in six countries, nearly 300 employees and $60 million in billings.
JohnPaul Kusz, one of the workshop's presenters, suggested that climate change, combined with energy depletion and explosive global population growth, has created a sort of perfect storm that makes the adoption of sustainable practices imperative. Kusz is founder and associate director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprises at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
The professor, who also is president of consulting firm JPKusz Ltd., said there are three kinds of companies: ``those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those that wonder what happened.''
In the U.S. alone, people throw away 426,000 cell phones each day, he said, underscoring the lifestyle practices that are combining to challenge our planet's health. The good news, he claims, is that a very real financial return on investment can accompany efforts that also deliver ``environmental ROI'' and ``societal ROI.''
The other workshop speaker, Paul Murray, environmental health and safety director at office furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., flatly told designers in the room: ``If you're not designing green, your products are obsolete. We have to design green products and it has to be embedded in, and not cost more otherwise people don't want to buy it.''
A key to making this happen is picking the right suppliers. If you're trying to find a good supplier, Murray stressed, check if they have a structure to get things done, and if they have sustainability goals and a strategy.
He said designing green initially can cost more upfront, but quickly added that ``green does not have to cost more'' in the final equation, given the payback in energy savings and reduced waste generation. ``Keeping waste out of the design can pay for the green design,'' Murray said.
The Selby, S.D., native joined Herman Miller in 1988, helped to establish its Environmental Quality Action Team, became environmental affairs manager in 1992 and assumed his current post two years ago. Murray said that more than 400 people are involved in Herman Miller's widely benchmarked EQAT initiative, only 10 of whom are paid for those efforts; the rest are volunteers.
One of EQAT's earliest efforts involved measuring and reducing the waste the company generated. Since the program started, Murray said Herman Miller has slashed the amount of waste it sends to landfills from 41 millions pounds a year to just 3.9 million pounds last year despite the firm doubling in size.
The Holland, Mich., furniture maker helped to start the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, which has more than 15,000 member organizations from across the building industry working to advance structures that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work.
The USGBC in 2000 developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system promoting sustainability in how buildings are designed, built and operated. LEED is a voluntary, third-party certification program an the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.
``Green buildings don't have to cost more, either,'' said Murray, who is a LEED-accredited professional. He contends that LEED-certified buildings of which Herman Miller has many can largely pay for themselves through operational cost savings. ``It's a great business proposition.''
Herman Miller, in addition to striving to make its office buildings and plants sustainable, applies the same sort of stringent guidelines to the products it designs and manufactures. The firm was an early adopter of Charlottesville, Va.-based McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry LLC's product design philosophy, which promotes the creation of products for ``cradle-to-cradle'' cycles so materials are perpetually circulated in closed loops.
``We push back on our suppliers,'' Murray said, challenging them to document the chemical constituency and life-cycle impact of every component in the supply chain from the plasticizers to the packaging.
By applying a detailed set of criteria to the analysis, every additive, chemical, material, coating, etc., is assigned either a green, yellow or red color coding. Green essentially means it is eco-friendly, yellow means it has detracting environmental factors but no feasible alternative exists, and red means it is flagged for being phased out as soon as possible.
Herman Miller's iconic Aeron office chair, which hit the market in 1995, contained 162 parts from 60 different vendors, was made using 67 percent recycled materials, and was designed for easy disassembly and eventual part recycling. The firm's next chair, the Mirra, involved assessing the chemical formulae for more than 100 parts. Some of the plastic plasticizers were deemed to be harmful, which prompted some changes in material choice.
``When we were done,'' Murray said, ``only seven of the 100 parts earned a red grade,'' and most of those were metals. And, he noted, the Mirra chair cost 15 percent less than the Aeron.
Murray said architects, product designers and business owners ``just need to ask questions.''
``It's the duty of designers,'' he told the audience.
Herman Miller Chief Executive Officer Brian Walker recently declared that ``neutral is not enough.'' Murray quoted Walker as saying, ``We can't just be satisfied with being carbon-neutral. We need to sequester carbon, make it [carbon-]positive, take it to that next stage.''
And when someone asked his advice on how a manager can get started down this environmentally friendly path, Murray pointed out how people are motivated by seeing results, no matter how small. And to be aware of progress, people first must determine where they are now.
``Measure!'' he said emphatically. ``What gets measured gets done.''