Steelcase's business strategies continue to line the pocketbooks, but not the landfills.

It is not a transient change; it is a permanent one.

That is what Steelcase Inc. says about how environmental awareness is changing not only the face of the office furniture industry — but the world. With hundreds of environmental achievements under its belt, this 95-year-old office furniture manufacturer understands the significance of how its products affect the natural world.

But the company that initiated reductions in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) years before regulatory mandate required them, and the world's first industrial facility to receive LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council is far from finished with its environmental legacy.

The Grand Rapids, MI-based company's latest environmental bragging rights are a result of: the completion of its 2-1/2-year effort to assess every chemical in its North American portfolio; the certification of the contract furniture industry's first “Cradle-to-Cradle” product; and the implementation of one of the first-ever, 100 percent water-based, UV finishing lines.

And it's not stopping there.

25 Percent in Five Years

By 2012, Steelcase wants to reduce its environmental footprint globally by 25 percent. The company's 2006 Environmental Report showcases significant progress toward that goal in a number of areas. Over the last five years, Steelcase has reduced:

• Greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent;

• VOC emissions by 95 percent;

• Water consumption by 54 percent; and

• Energy consumption by 46 percent.

All of this was accomplished while sales and profits increased over the last three years.

According to Angela Nahikian, Steelcase's manager of global environmental strategy, some of Steelcase's environmental efforts make the company money while others do not — but overall, she says, the company has profited both financially and ethically.

“It's a philosophy about how we do business more than it's a set plan,” she says. “We do have a plan with specific aspirations and benchmarks, but the essence of it is that this is the way we do business every day and are going to continue doing it for a long time.”

Kevin Kuske, general manager of Steelcase Wood, uses the new UV finishing line as an example. “When you first look at UV-water, it looks like it's going to be more expensive. But I think as we work through it, we're going to prove that it's just as cost effective. I have a high degree of confidence in that because we've been through it on so many other things. At the end of the day, you just have to drive these solutions to be both cost effective and good for the environment.”

Ultraviolet, Ultra Lean

When Steelcase opened the country's first LEED Silver-certified industrial facility in 2001, one of the factory's “green” characteristics was the use of water-based glues, stains, topcoats and UV finishes. According to Kuske, water-based finishes were seen as a friendlier alternative to solvent-based finishes for two reasons:

1.) Wood plant operators would no longer risk being exposed to those chemicals on the job.

2.) Products would no longer degrade indoor air quality by emitting solvents.

“Moving from a solvent to a water-based system leads to the most drastic reduction of solvent-based emissions,” Kuske says. “This happens both in the manufacturing environment and ultimate customer office environment, making a better, safer environment for both our employees and our customers.”

According to Steelcase's 2006 Environmental Report, the company's VOC emissions have dropped from more than 1,500 tons to less than 60 tons in the last five years — a 95 percent reduction.

However, replacing traditional solvents with water meant a longer and less-efficient cure time in Steelcase's thermal finishing equipment because the heat had different effects on the two substances, Kuske says.

“In the past, when you had solvent-based [finishes], solvents evaporated quickly and in a way that allowed the solid to dry in a nice, smooth [manner],” Kuske says. “When you go to water-based finishes, thermal takes a long time and a lot of energy. So in some sense, you're kind of undoing the good of the environmental aspects because you're using more electricity.”

While it may look like any other large woodworking plant from the outside, Steelcase’s Grand Rapids Wood Plant is anything but typical on the inside. Natural lighting, VOC-free conditions and recycled rain water are among the “green” highights of the 600,000-square-foot facility.
Steelcase Inc.

Grand Rapids, MI

Office furniture giant Steelcase Inc.’s goal in its environmental plan is to reduce by 25 percent its global environmental footprint. The company already has instituted a number of initiatives, including reducing VOCs and tracking chemicals used in materials.

Three Keys

1. The company is implementing one of the first 100-percent water-based, UV finishing lines.

2. Steelcase recently completed a 2-1/2-year assessment of every chemical used in its North American-made products.

3. The Answer workstation is the first contract furniture product to receive a Silver “Cradle-to-Cradle” certification from McDonough Branugart Design Chemistry. Four other Steelcase products have also received MBDC’s official seal of approval.

Using thermal finishing techniques with water-based solvents also does not make sense from a business perspective, he adds. According to Kuske, products made with water-based finishes continue curing for about three months after undergoing heat-induced curing in the factory — which not only increases production time, but also allows for more handling damage in the distribution, installation and move-in process.

But when products made with water-based finishes are exposed to UV light, as opposed to heat, the curing process in the factory is much shorter — and it is completely done as soon as it lea

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