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The Eco-Conscious Company Trying to Tackle the Living Product Challenge

How Humanscale is overcoming the hurdles of ultra-sustainable manufacturing

Going beyond good enough sounds like an empty motivational slogan, but it has been a central tenant for Humanscale, a sustainability and ergonomics-minded manufacturer of office products, and furniture, takes seriously.

They have a specific environmental design product development process. A solar array sits atop the factory rooftop in Parsippany, New Jersey, and the company has been donating money to support a wildlife refuge in Cambodia for the last decade. But with the introduction of a rigorous, never-achieved standard for manufacturing sustainability, the company decided they needed to push themselves.

"The Living Product Challenge is something we started looking into because it resonated with our approach to product development and the environment," says Jane Abernethy, an industrial designer at Humanscale. "We had been looking for a way to design a net-positive chair, but had trouble defining what that meant. What’s great about this challenge is they’ve set the goal for us."

The International Living Future Institute, the group behind the groundbreaking Living Building Challenge, introduced the rigorous standard last year, sets an incredibly high bar for sustainability. Like the architecture-related standard, this ambitious design challenge is meant to be a catalyst, encouraging designers to think beyond their normal process and create entirely new sustainable solutions.

It took years for anybody to meet the Living Building Challenge, which was introduced in 2006. But the Bullitt Center, declared the world’s most sustainable office building when it was completed in 2013, became a template, and now dozens have met varying degrees of the standard.

"We want to create a program where you will have to change everything about the way you make your product," James Connelly, Director of the Living Product Challenge, told Curbed last year. "Set a bar that's an ideal. Can you create a product that's net-positive on energy with a socially adjusted supply chain that's gorgeous and beautiful? It's never been done before."

Since last November, Humanscale has been looking at ways to change the manufacturing process for both the Smart Chair and Float Table, and bring these existing products in line with the Living Product Challenge. To obtain this rigorous certification, products must meet a series of 20 requirements for sustainability and social justice, which, among other things, include: being net-zero on energy and water, not including any toxic chemicals or materials, using materials sourced locally, and being equitable to workers. It's basically no impact manufacturing across a number of criteria.

Humanscale prides itself on rigorous sustainability criteria and maintaining a green manufacturing facility, and already meets 95 percent of the criteria. That final 5 percent, however, proved to be a disproportionately difficult challenge.

An item as seemingly simple as the Smart Chair contains hundreds of components that come from more than 30 different suppliers and sub suppliers.

A design team was formed to bring two products, the Float Sit/Stand Desk and Diffrient Smart Chair, up to the Living Product standard. Meeting these types of challenges requires numerous layers of analysis and re-design, starting with a material audit.

"We had gotten to the point where we talked to our suppliers, and their suppliers, and their suppliers," says Priyanka Ventatesh, an engineer on the development team. "It got to the point that some suppliers just couldn’t be pushed anymore. We’ve changed suppliers because of this. An item as seemingly simple as the Smart Chair contains hundreds of components that come from more than 30 different suppliers and sub suppliers."

For the Smart Chair, there were two holdups. A flip ring on a seat, an optional accessory, was on the Materials Red List of toxic chemicals, so that was easy to replace. The real challenge was eliminating the use of a stain-resistant textile coating, a synthetic chemical related to Teflon, from the production process. The Humanscale team discovered that the chemical was almost an industry standard; mills from across the globe use it, and in order to remove it, a staff chemist has been looking into optional coatings from different industries, trying to see if other suppliers can adopt it for their textile manufacturing.

"Transparency can be very difficult, but it’s the only way to improve the process," says Abernathy.

Since the upgraded products are still in development, and planned for release later this year, the company hasn't figured out final costs or processes. But there are definitely increases. For instance, the price of the Float Table will carry a 30 percent premium due to eliminating the use of formaldehyde, which required sourcing from more expensive suppliers.

This knowledge gives Humanscale the familiarity with, knowledge of, and connections with premium vendors that makes future product development that much easier.

"The design process won’t change, since we already had this as part of our process, but we’ve been talking to more and more people about eliminating these chemicals, which means more and more people are aware," says Abernathy. "Now the entire team knows they can’t find alternative sources, or do anything that would compromise these goals. It makes it really permeate the process."

Working to meet the challenge has upgraded the company's commitment to green manufacturing. The search for a better seat has led Humanscale to finish its system to track all chemicals throughout the entire manufacturing process. It's also motivating workers at the company's New Jersey factory, who are composting lunches and starting gardens to help make the manufacturing process more sustainable.

"It’s motivating to see we could be first, and go above and beyond," says Abernathy. "You're making physical products that make an impact on the real world, and it can be real motivating, as a company creating products, to see that we’re going in the right direction."

How the Living Product Challenge Seeks to Revolutionize Sustainable Manufacturing [Curbed]