Herman Miller's Brian Walker talks LEED, green tech

Herman Miller is known as an innovative design and manufacturing firm of office furniture and equipment and furniture for the home. With 6,500 employees worldwide, this Zeeland company also has earned admiration for sustainability.

Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council in Grand Rapids, applauds the way both Herman Miller and competitor Steelcase of Grand Rapids have worked side-by-side to change furniture, design and built communities, creating sustainable business practices and integrating them into their industry.

Decades ago, before the term "green jobs" was popularized, west Michigan’s social, manufacturing, business and government sectors understood the connection the health of the economy and the environment, she said.

“Herman Miller has done an amazing amount of work looking at their entire product development process, and making sure that not only are they using sustainable business practices, but their suppliers are, as well,” said Hood. “They’ve looked at the entire process, from the manufacturing of a bolt all the way to the end product of a table or chair. They’ve made sure that in building furniture, they don’t have a deleterious effect on our community’s natural resources.”

Bridge Magazine's Jo Mathis spoke recently with Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker about why the company is committed to green techniques and how they play out in daily practice.

Bridge: The Grand Rapids area ranks very high for LEED-certified buildings. Any thoughts on how West Michigan became such a leader in a traditionally liberal issue of energy conservation?

A: Of course, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is broader than energy conservation. It’s a much more all-encompassing view of what we know is a building’s impact. In West Michigan, we have a lot of companies that are led by leaders who have very strong, broad views of their impact on their communities.West Michigan has had a long history of companies and founding families re-investing in the area and a deep belief that we have to keep sharpening the saw for the area. There’s a very strong sense of community in this area, and a belief that we have to invest in ourselves, so it only makes sense that we’re going to take care of the environment.

Bridge: Your company has dramatically reduced VOC air emissions, processed water use and hazardous and solid waste since declaring a zero landfill target in 1994. How did you do it?

A: We have an organization we call EQAD -- Employee Quality Action Team -- a large group of folks from throughout the company who divide up all this work. It’s a relentless focus on asking, “How do you make each individual small step a way to take waste out of the system?"

A lot of it is paying attention to a thousand little details that this team goes out and looks for and learns about what’s going on in the world around them.

Bridge: Do you pass on the cost of being green to the consumer?

A: Our belief in the long run is the things we’ve done around the environment have been a net benefit to our cost structure, not a net ad. Now, that’s in the long run because sometimes we’re investing in things to create new capabilities. That could cause the cost of an item to go up for a period of time, but in the long run, we believe they’re going to go down. We don’t believe you can ultimately simply charge higher prices because things are green.

Bridge: Herman Miller is a founding member of the U.S. Green Building Council, which helped formulate LEED certification guidelines. What effect has the USGBC had in the 18 years since it began?

A: The biggest thing the USGBC and LEED did was to create a uniform way to put the stake in the ground to know whether the buildings they’re building are as environmentally effective as they can be. And certainly you can do all those things without getting LEED-certified. So I don’t think getting certified is the issue. The big deal is the education it started and in fact, I’m sure there are many more green buildings today that are LEED-certified because the US Green Council put that stake in the ground and popularized it in a way that it that it became in the conscious of everyone who is building. Or thinking about building.

Bridge: How did your company become interested in the environmental impact of manufacturing, assembling and shipping your products?

A: In some ways, this is part of the DNA of the company. We’re always believed that companies have to look beyond simply providing value to shareholders. We’ve always heeded an integrated stakeholder model as being at the core of what Herman Miller believed in way back when D.J. De Pree created it in the 1950s.

Our organization, in particular, always has been much more driven and excited when they believe they have a purpose that’s beyond simply trading dollars. When you look at the totality of what we do, it gives everyone -- from the person on the shop floor to me -- a sense of purpose that we’re making a bigger impact on the world. We’re doing good, and when we do good, we get better people because they’re energized by that. When we get better people, we in fact get better results. And when we get better results, we have more money and more capabilities to give back into the community.

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