Chicago — At the grocery store, food labels display an ingredient list to help you make good choices. What if the same approach worked for other products?
That's the idea behind a labeling initiative introduced by New York City-headquartered furniture manufacturer Humanscale Corp.
The company lists 99 percent of the materials used to manufacture each of its products, from the structural polymers and metals down to additives and coatings, on what it calls Declare labels. The labels were prominently displayed in Humanscale's showroom at NeoCon 2017, the commercial design trade show held in June in Chicago.
"We wanted to go further than [legal requirements] as an organization, because our DNA has always been about the environment," said Lynda Dehn, global director of contract and compliance at Humanscale. " I have a chemical engineer on staff, and he has literally worked with every one of our suppliers to identify every single component and what substance is in every single component we manufacture."
Identifying the chemicals going into its products allowed Humanscale to build material transparency into its entire product development process. Beyond disclosing the materials used, Humanscale also tracks water and energy consumption used in manufacturing and designs its products to avoid chemicals like formaldehyde and hexavalent chromium.
"Now, instead of playing catch-up we've actually instituted a whole process," Dehn said. "When the design studio and the engineers start working on a new product, there's criteria they have to meet in order for us to even launch it. Then we said, now that we know everything that goes into our products, why don't we take it to the next level and declare everything that goes into our products just like a food label?'"
The Declare labels also list the product's life expectancy and end-of-life recyclability. A key challenge with plastics-intensive office furniture, Dehn said, is that one of the most commonly used forms of reinforcement, fiberglass, makes the furniture much harder to recycle. One way the company is addressing that shortened life cycle is by looking for opportunities to use recycled instead of virgin resin in the first place.
Humanscale has partnered with Bureo, a company that collects and recycles discarded nylon fishing nets in Chile, to develop a prototype of its Diffrient World Chair using Bureo's recycled material.
Founded with a goal of helping to reduce ocean pollution, Bureo collects used nylon fishing nets, cleans them and reprocesses the material into pellets that it uses to manufacture skateboard decks, sunglasses and other products.
The Humanscale partnership is part of Bureo's goal to supply more outside manufacturers with the recycled material, said Kevin J. Ahearn Jr., one of the company's co-founders. To date, Bureo has collected more than 200,000 pounds of discarded fishing nets, according to its website. Humanscale's prototype chair incorporates 13.6 pounds, or about 250 square feet, of fishing net, the frame reinforced with fiberglass.
"Humanscale is already making a chair that is exactly this, a 30-percent fiberglass, nylon chair," Ahearn said. "They're already doing that, so why not just use our base nylon here? There's a few other tricks when it comes to processing — temperatures, moisture content and stuff, but the main idea is that it's a replaceable substitute."
Humanscale has manufacturing operations in Piscataway, N.J.; Fresno, Calif.; Nogales, Mexico; and Dublin.