Cradle-to-Cradle Design at Herman Miller: Moving Toward Environmental Sustainability
Herman Miller, an office furniture supplier, decided to implement the cradle-to-cradle (C2C) design protocol during the design of its mid-level office chair, Mirra. The C2C protocol was a set of environmentally friendly product development guidelines created by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. The essence of this protocol was to eliminate waste and potentially harmful materials by designing the product so that, at the end of its useful life, the raw materials could be fed back into either a technical or biological cycle and used for the same or other purposes. Therefore, materials remained in a closed-loop, eliminating the need for landfill and other toxic forms of disposal such as incineration. The case describes the C2C protocol, the details of how Herman Miller implemented C2C during the design of the Mirra chair, as well as the impact of the new protocol on their internal processes: design decisions, manufacturing, and supply chain management. The proximate decision point in the case is whether the company should replace the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material in the arm pads of the Mirra chair. PVC was a highly toxic material to manufacture and dispose of and thus violated the C2C protocol. However, it was the standard material for arm pads and many other parts in the office furniture industry as it was durable, scratch resistant, and inexpensive. To switch to thermoplastic urethane (TPU), a more environmentally friendly material, for the Mirra Chair arm pad required at least modification of a production tool, or possibly a completely new tool. In addition, the cost of TPU was higher than PVC. There was also uncertainty about how consistent the quality of the arm pad would be with TPU.