The ‘Life-Cycle’ of Sustainability

April 1, 2008

Environmental best practices have been going on for a long time

During my interviews for this month's cover story on the LEED-EB O&M certification of the world's largest commercial building - The Merchandise Mart in Chicago - Mark Falanga, senior vice president at Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI), provided me with an interesting retrospective of green initiatives undertaken by The Mart's contract-showroom tenants. I expected to see some interesting bits and bytes of information beginning (perhaps, I thought) in the early 1970s, when such general concerns for the environment seemed to arise among industry and academic communities. Mark, however, presented a timeline that began in 1900 - more than a century ago, and 30 years before The Merchandise Mart first opened its doors. Apparently, such recorded initiatives to save our environment might be considered the true testament to past innovators, whose persistence and vision are finally being realized today ... and for the long term.

Following is a sample of that information. It appears that sustainability isn't such a "new" thought or process after all ...

1900 - Milliken begins reusing packing materials.

1945 - Roger Milliken establishes the Milliken Research Corp. for textile research purposes.

1947 - HON begins to take interest in lean manufacturing.

1953 - Herman Miller Founder DJ DePree declares that the company will be a "good steward of the environment."

1960 - Roger Milliken mandates that Milliken "responsibly use natural resources and reduce the company's imprint on the environment."

1965 - Steelcase initiates its first environmental program to help better understand its environmental impact.

1967 - Tandus invents a new flooring material without a damaging, wet adhesive.

1973 - Steelcase initiates a VOC-reduction program.

1974 - Kohler introduces a line of low-water-consumption toilets, faucets, and showerheads.

1978 - Kohler engineers receive a U.S. patent for an innovative timed flushing system that increases the efficiency of the company's one-piece, low-flow toilets.

1979 - Steelcase installs a waste-to-energy incinerator at Grand Rapids' energy center.

1979 - Tandus' powerbond flooring is installed at the Fairbanks Intl. Airport, and is still performing today despite the harsh weather conditions and 18 million travelers who walked on it.

1980 - Steelcase's environmental engineer is on call 24/7 for environmental emergencies.

1981 - Herman Miller's energy center begins burning waste to generate electrical and steam power to run its million-square-foot Main Site manufacturing facility.

1983 - Steelcase's new corporate headquarters building includes features to promote energy conservation.

1986 - Milliken develops a PVC-free modular carpet.

1988 - Steelcase makes a commitment to work toward a 50-percent reduction of ozone-depleting substances.

1989 - Herman Miller employees create the Environmental Quality Action Team (EQAT) to coordinate environmental programs companywide.

1989 - Sensitive to new requirements for water conservation, Kohler introduces a 1.5-gallon toilet.

1989 - Revest is founded to help Steelcase's customers reuse, remanufacture, and recycle office furniture.

1990 - Phase 1 of Herman Miller's Design for the Environment (DIE) begins, establishing criteria for product design.

1991 - Steelcase recycles 5 million pounds of steel scrap per month.

1992 - Steelcase's office recycling program collects 747,663 pounds of paper.  Its Wood Division also commits to using wood obtained only from domestic sources or sustained yield programs.

1992 - Rapid Continuous Improvement (RCI) is introduced at Allsteel's parent company (HNI) to empower employers to find ways to eliminate waste.

1993 - Haworth begins an on-site corporate recycling center.

1993 - Herman Miller becomes a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council.  Cherry and walnut from sustainable sources also replace the endangered rosewood on a Herman Miller-brand lounge chair and ottoman.

1993 - Steelcase begins using ash, shipped from a Grand Rapids power plant, to create cement, reducing raw materials and landfilled waste by 79 percent.

1994 - Ray Anderson is asked to address the environmental mission at Interface Inc., setting in motion a revolution.

1994 - KI recommits to reducing its environmental impact.

1994 - Steelcase initiates more environmentally friendly finishing methods in several plant locations by installing powder-coat finishing systems and converting to water-based adhesives.

1994 - Tandus creates the carpet industry's first closed-loop recycling program (infinity initiative).

1995 - DesignTex introduces a collection of textiles manufactured, used, and disposed of with no negative environmental impact.

1995 - QUEST (Quality Utilizing Employee Suggestions & Teamwork) is born at Interface. The employee-led team targets waste in all forms.  Interface also joins the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

1995 - Herman Miller's GreenHouse building opens, which employs the latest environmental thinking and practices. The building wins the LEED pioneer award.

1996 - Tandus introduces 100-percent recycled content vinyl backing.

1997 - Interface publishes its first Corporate Sustainability Report. It is the first company in the United States to adopt the Natural Step. Sustainability begins corporation-wide. Interface also begins its carpet reclamation program; first attempts yield a backing of 5-percent post-consumer vinyl.

1998 - Mid-Course Correction is published. Ray Anderson's book tells the story of his realization that businesses need to embrace principles of sustainability. President Clinton appoints Ray Anderson to co-chair the President's Council on Sustainable Development. Other Interface initiatives include a phasing out of piece-dyed and printed operations in favor of solution-dyed and tufted products. Interface becomes the first in the commercial interiors industry with a Trees for Travel Program, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from business air travel.

1998 - Steelcase reduces VOC emissions from its Grand Rapids, MI, plants by 28 percent in 1 year.

1998 - Tandus is awarded innovative New Product of the Year by the National Recycling Coalition.

1999 - Allsteel begins receiving fiber glass cut to size to improve waste recycling and promote a healthy manufacturing environment.

1999 - Milliken sends zero waste to landfill and employees closed-loop recycling.

1999 - The Mohawk Group begins rubber tire collection.

2000 - Allsteel manufacturing waste begins to be recycled as car trunk liners.

2000 - Interface introduces the first commercially viable carpet to use recycled nylon face fiber and a 100-percent recycled secondary backing layer.

2000 - Tandus is the first company to promote the use of the Federal Trade Commission's "guides for the use of environmental marketing claims."

2001 - Interface introduces the world's first climate-neutral flooring.

2001 - Lees Carpet receives more than 100 percent of its electrical energy from renewable hydroelectric sources.

2002 - Watson Furniture receives the Washington State Governor's Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices.

2003 - AIS is the first furniture system to be awarded the Shingo Award for excellence in lean manufacturing.

2003 - Allsteel is presented with the U.S. General Services Administration's Evergreen Furniture Award, acknowledging the company's environmental efforts.

2003 - Harden Furniture certifies its 10,000 acres of timber properties with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

2003 - Herman Miller introduces a chair line that is 96-percent recyclable, made of 42-percent recycled content.

2003 - The Mohawk Group begins using a post-consumer and post-industrial recycled material that contributes to LEED value.

2003 - Steelcase archives the goal of becoming VOC-free.

2003 - Teknion's waste diversion rate reaches 45 percent. The company is also aligned to standards set by LEED.

Not surprisingly, the list of key initiatives being taken by organizations grows by leaps and bounds as the concept of green takes hold (that's why the list here stops at 2003; in 5 short years, there are too many more sustainable practices to report in this space). Readers: Are you and your company creating a list?

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