Sustainability, by its very definition, is not the most proactive term. It implies a degree of maintenance or keeping things at the status quo. Forward-thinking companies, however, realise that to be true leaders in this space they need to be doing much more than simply avoiding being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources.
More than just minimising our impact on our surroundings, there is now ample opportunity to actually improve the situation. After all, if you don’t give back more than you’re taking away, then you’re really not making a difference. And, even if you are making zero impact, others are still not behaving sustainably, so the net effect is still negative. To counteract this, and set an example of the positive results that can ensue when companies are progressive in this area, the US-based Living Future Institute (which has a local affiliate – Living Future Institute Australia, living-future.org.au) has instigated three Living Future Challenges to inspire different industries to make a sustainable difference. Along with the Living Building and Living Community Challenges, there is the Living Product Challenge, which targets the companies and organisations that manufacture the goods and products we use every day.
Watch a video interview series with Pete Stacey on FMTV.
This challenge contains seven performance categories, also known as ‘petals’. They are place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity and beauty. Each of these petals is subdivided into a further 20 ‘imperatives’, which focus on specific spheres of influence. These imperatives require products to feature or accommodate: responsible place and habitat impacts, habitat exchange, net positive water, net positive energy, net positive material health, human thriving, red list (harmful materials), living economy sourcing, responsible industry, net positive climate, net positive waste, product fit to use, useful life disposal, equitable product access, responsible co-products, equitable investment, just organisations, positive handprinting, beauty and spirit, and inspiration and education.
There are varying levels of certification and there are 50 companies globally that have currently committed to being part of the Living Product Challenge, but Australia has already seen the first two products in the world officially classified as Living Products – the Float table and the Diffrient Smart task chair, both from Humanscale.
Both products meet all seven requirements in the performance categories, which means consumers know that, if they buy them, they can feel justly proud of themselves that they are giving more back to the environment than they are taking away. The Living Product Challenge presented Humanscale with the 2017 Manufacturer Visionary Award for its commitment to transparency, its completion of the Living Product Challenge and its overall mission to create a future that is socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative.
By recognising the company’s comprehensive efforts to create a net positive impact on the earth, the award further distinguishes the brand as a leader for sustainable manufacturing across industries and around the world. So every time someone buys a Float table or Diffrient Smart chair, not only are they getting a highly functional, healthy product, but they are also making a positive contribution to the environment… which is pretty cool.
They know that any water used in the manufacturing process is recycled, and that the solar power utilised in that process means the company is actually producing more energy than it is using. As Humanscale is a company built to produce ergonomic furniture, the health and happiness category has long been achieved. Its products are designed to be easy to adjust and to get people using them into neutral postures – proven by many years of research to be the most comfortable way of working. These products are also designed to have as few parts as possible. Fewer parts manufactured mean fewer parts to ship and fewer parts to recycle at end of life.
One of the most pressing categories is, of course, materials. The red list means Living Products cannot contain dangerous elements, such as volatile organic compounds, formaldehyde or hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium VI) – the latter two still frequently found in worktops and polishes respectively.
The argument some manufacturers make is that their products only have minimal amounts of such contaminants and that as people aren’t eating the benchtops laced with formaldehyde or licking the chairs polished with hexavalent chromium, there is little to be concerned about. But the problem is that these products eventually end up in landfill, which leads to the toxic chemicals leaching into the water cycle. Or, as we witnessed in Melbourne last month, being released into the air if the worst happens and there is a fire at a recycling plant.
Chromium VI, you may recall, was the highly toxic chemical found to have contaminated the water in the southern Californian town of Hinkley, leading to a massive payout by the culprit, Pacific Gas and Electric in 1996. The case was made famous when it was recreated in the movie Erin Brockovich.
As more companies join initiatives like the Living Product Challenge, the hope is that one day such lawsuits will be a thing of the past. Consumers will have safer, more sustainable products and manufacturers will no longer find themselves thumped with US$333 million settlements. Win/win all round.
In the meantime, though Humanscale is at the forefront of responsible prosperity, proving it is possible to be forward-thinking and still profitable. Other than the Living Product Challenge, it has initiated a number of measures in its journey to being more than merely sustainable, including being a founding member of the Net Positive Project, which advocates for a world where companies drive financial success and create net positive impacts by putting more into society, the environment and the global economy than they take out, developing an interior company-wide initiative called WeSpire, an employee engagement platform and engaging in Earth Day events across the globe.
A company mantra is that it sees its factories as trees – giving back more to the environment than they are taking from it.
Pete Stacey is the country manager Australia and New Zealand for Humanscale. He has worked for the company for 14 years, four years in the UK and 10 years in Australia. For more discussion on this subject, visit FMTV for Pete Stacey’s interview video series.
This article also appears in the August/September issue of Facility Management magazine.