More Good than Harm: How Humanscale Reduced Carbon Emissions with a Lightbulb

The company is exploring every avenue to offset the carbon footprint of its manufacturing and operations—and then going further.

Just by getting customers of the Smart chair to replace a light fixture, Humanscale could make a positive impact. Courtesy Humanscale

Humanscale, maker of the iconic Freedom task chair, has practiced sustainable principles since its founding in 1983 by CEO Bob King. But each department had its own way to approach the issue, and the company needed a cohesive vision. This led chief sustainability officer Jane Abernethy to question leadership on what sustainability really means for the company. To simply reduce its footprint as much as possible was not good enough for her or for King. Humanscale needed to be part of a more far-reaching solution.

Enter Greg Norris, chief scientist at the nonprofit International Living Future Institute (ILFI), who formulated the concept of the “handprint,” an environmental contribution that counteracts the negative effects of manufacturing and other business activities. His work provided the framework for Humanscale’s “net positive” vision to give back more energy or sequester more carbon than its operations consume. Based on life-cycle analyses of its products, the company uncovered some surprising insights—that the footprint of producing one of its chairs, for example, could be offset many times over if users would just replace a single incandescent bulb in their spaces with an LED light.

Armed with this information, Humanscale carried out a series of actions such as using only captured rainwater and 80 to 90 percent solar energy at its New Jersey production facility and distributing LED lightbulbs with every one of its Smart chairs. It has now become the first manufacturer to meet all the criteria of ILFI’s Living Product Challenge and whose entire portfolio is BIFMA LEVEL 3 certified. Overall, the handprinting concept and the net positive movement have been inspirational and influential, says Abernethy. “As we operate, the world is becoming better off, and as we grow and expand, the more the world is better off.”

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