The Circular Office Gives Second Life to Workplace Furniture

Major manufacturers are exploring every avenue to close the loop on office supplies and furniture, having a positive environmental and social impact along the way.

Herman Miller worked with General Motors to divert tons of office supplies and furniture from landfills and waste streams during office renovations. Pictured: GM’s Vehicle Engineering Center in Michigan. Courtesy Andre Laroche

The commercial property–remodeling industry in the United States is humming in a strong economy. Annual revenue growth has reached nearly 9 percent in the past five years, according to an IBIS World estimate.

This is great news for office workers getting the refresh they crave, but not good news for the planet. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the volume of furniture sent to landfills rose from 7.6 million to 9.69 million tons between 2005 and 2015.

Manufacturers have a role to play in reversing this trend, and for decades some have done their part by designing pieces that are easy to recycle. But today some of the world’s largest manufacturers are doing more to close the loop.

Herman Miller, for example, works with customers to plan for asset disposal. Through a combination of resale, recycling, donation, and relocation, its rePurpose program has diverted more than 27,000 tons of product from landfills and generated $18 million in charitable in-kind donations since 2009.

Nearly half of the decommissioned assets have been resold, generating revenue for customers, while landfill disposal would have incurred a cost.

“The Aeron chair, for example, is very easy to resell,” notes Gabe Wing, Herman Miller’s director of safety and sustainability.

Even as companies advocate smarter use of resources, the potential downside of diminished consumption is not lost on them. So some, in turn, are looking to decouple finite-resource consumption from growth. Steelcase has been working to keep its products in continuous use. In addition to a de-commissioning program, its Circular Services team is piloting pay-for-experience services and other avenues.

“The circular economy is the new industrial revolution,” the company’s 2018 corporate sustainability report stated. “Product-service systems will be central to the shift.”

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