Greening the Workplace

Nov. 21, 2003
The Gradual Progression Toward “Green” Furniture
Contemporary office furniture is designed using a relatively small number of materials. Steel, aluminum, and composite wood account for most structural components while laminates, polyester fabrics, and plastic trim provide aesthetics. The recycled content ranges from 30 percent for steel to 100 percent for cast aluminum and some polyester fabrics. Nearly 100 percent of the composite wood products used by the industry are manufactured from sawdust generated during the milling of dimensional lumber and/or plantation trees grown for pulp.Over the last 20 years, furniture manufacturers have worked to eliminate occupational hazards and provide clean, safe workplaces for their employees. At the same time, the cost of environmental compliance has encouraged the development of people-friendly, environmentally friendly materials such as solvent-free powder paint and hot melt adhesives. The effect of these combined efforts is a workplace essentially free of chemical exposure for both employee and office worker.In early 2000, designers began to understand that incorporating environmental considerations into workspace planning could improve worker productivity, thus improving business profitability. Amenities such as daylight views, elimination of glare, and temperature control became requirements for effective workspace solutions.In response to the need for factual information, various certifications and certifying organizations have evolved to validate claims of environmental performance. Current certifications tend to be narrowly focused on individual areas such as energy efficiency or recycled material content; and obtaining third-party certification is time-consuming and often expensive. For example, a single test of indoor air emissions of a standard workstation runs $15,000 to $20,000 and may not satisfy the needs of every end-user. This makes it difficult to make quick choices among “green” offerings.There are, however, some excellent examples of unified specifications such as The State of California Green Specification for Open Office Furniture Systems, which sets minimum criteria for bidding on state contracts. In addition, industry groups and standards organization such as American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) are working to establish uniform definitions of terms and harmonize the efforts of the various certification programs. When combined with the LEED™ rating systems, these emerging standards provide facility managers with the necessary resources for making logical, cost-effective decisions that lower the environmental impact of the building and workplace, improve productivity, and enhance the bottom line for a business.So what do we do now? If you are asking this question, then you have started the process of recognizing and reducing the environmental impact of your current and future workspace projects. It’s important to select vendors early in the process who take the time to understand your goals and provide clear answers to your questions. Qualified manufacturers will provide information on their products that is factual and informative. Some examples are: indoor air quality evaluations; environmental data sheets (EDS) summarizing recycled content, end-of-useful-life management; and a description of the manufacturer’s environmental commitment. Your choice of provider, whether flooring, lighting, or furniture, helps determine how quickly we green America’s workplace. Scott Lesnet is environmental manager at Muscatine, IA-based Allsteel Inc. (

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