Many companies also have taken steps to make their manufacturing operations environmentally friendly, as well. For instance, some have switched to powder-coat finishes, rather than wet paints, which contain a higher level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They also are able to reclaim and reuse any powder-coating overspray.
Herman Miller has implemented low water-use systems to reduce waste-water effluent, says Mark Schurman, company spokesperson. The company uses alternative fuels, including solar power and methane off-gassing from landfills, and purchases renewable energy credits. In total, nearly 70 percent of the company's worldwide energy consumption is green.
Kimball Office burns waste, such as wood scraps, to generate steam, heat and electricity to power its manufacturing operations, says Steven Brewster, sustainability manager.
Another focus is indoor air quality. In the 1990s, Kimball began eliminating harmful chemicals, reducing VOC emissions by more than 35 percent. The company also uses a water-based finish that almost eliminates emissions.
Once the furniture is made, it needs to be transported to the customers. To reduce the amount of fuel its trucks consume, Trendway installed auxiliary motors. These allow drivers to stay heated or cooled when they're sleeping in their rigs, without running the main engine. The change saves about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel per truck each year.
When it comes to materials, one of the most environmentally friendly steps a company can take is simply to use less. With that in mind, Herman Miller has a family of chairs that weigh in at about 20 pounds each, or about one-third the weight of similar chairs, due to the use of fewer materials.
Packaging also consumes materials. Until recently, Allsteel employees would wrap each work surface individually before shipping it, resulting in large quantities of packaging materials, fewer surfaces packed into one truck and more trucks needed to haul the surfaces from one point to another.
The company found that it could safely ship surfaces after just shrink-wrapping them and adding corner protectors. They were able to cut the amount of packaging used and fit more surfaces on one truck, saving money and energy. What's more, the damage rate for surfaces actually decreased. "When people unload the trucks, if they see something all wrapped up, they assume that they don't have to be careful," Luly says.
One type of material attracting interest is that made from "rapidly renewable resources," which can be grown in ten years or less, says Nance of KI. Examples include bamboo and cork, among other products. For instance, KI's foam seating materials, which have been petroleum-based, now include a 15 percent soy blend — a number Nance expects to rise.
For its workstations, HON offers a composite material that's partly made from plants. This is an annually renewable resource that is stable and low-emitting, says Tjebkes.
The proportion of rapidly renewable content seems likely to grow, given that prices are coming down. For instance, while wheat board surfaces used to run about 40 percent more than other surfaces, the price difference now is at about four to five percent, says Nance. "Customers can more easily justify it."
To be sure, facilities managers considering the purchase of products made with rapidly renewable materials will want to check just how they've been produced. In order to boost the durability of some materials, the manufacturer needs to include substances that aren't environmentally friendly. For instance, some wood product waste that's used for furniture is mixed with plastic in order to make it durable. "Once you mix in the plastic, at the end of its useful life you can't do anything except put it in a landfill," says Luly.
Recycled content is finding its way into their products. The steel components in Kimball's furniture, for instance, contain approximately 30 percent post-industrial recycled content. About 90 percent of the corrugated material KI uses for packaging is post-consumer waste.
Most furniture manufacturers also have comprehensive recycling programs. In 2009, HON diverted about 10,000 tons of post-consumer wood waste from landfills by re-using it in materials for chairs. It also partners with another company that takes scrap fabric from the company's chairs and wall panels to create material that can be used in products like trunk liners in cars. By doing so, the company keeps about 300,000 pounds of fabric from the landfill each year. Kimball recycles 65 different items, including steel, glass, aluminum and plastics. Wright Line recycles 85 percent of the steel used in its manufacturing process.
In determining just how recyclable a product it, it's important to consider the way in which the materials are used, Schurman of Herman Miller says. For instance, if you bond together two materials, such as steel and plastic, recycling becomes very expensive because the materials first have to be separated. Similarly, because margins in recycling tend to be low, disassembling any furniture that's going to be recycled needs to be quick and easy. Otherwise, the labor required to separate the various materials quickly eats up any revenue a company may get from selling the recyclable material. For that reason, Herman Miller requires any disassembly to take no more than 15 seconds, and to be doable using a hand tool.
As these examples indicate, many furniture manufacturers have taken significant steps. To be sure, the work isn't over yet. "We have to continue to manage the effort better by recycling more, reducing our use of chemicals and looking for substitutions to reduce our carbon footprint," says Nance. "It's evolving and will go on for many years."
Karen Kroll, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate and facility issues.
Furniture Manufacturers Make Products More Sustainable
Efficient Manufacturing and Sustainable Materials Management