Jane Abernethy Insists on Walking the Talk 

Humanscale’s chief sustainability officer, and a part of this year’s Metropolis Specify Hot List, has led the company through dozens of green product certifications.

“I tend to not share a goal publicly because when companies say they’re going to be net zero, they get the reward before they do the hard work,” says Jane Abernethy. That comment should tell you everything you need to know about Humanscale’s chief sustainability officer. Since joining Humanscale, Abernethy has made a practice of setting, meeting, and exceeding her goals, a work ethic that has the manufacturer reaping enviable rewards. 

An industrial designer by trade, Abernethy was always drawn to art, architecture, and creative problem-solving. “When you design a product, you have to understand why you’re doing it,” she says. “Nobody wants a toaster; they just want toast.” And problem-solving doesn’t always involve designing new products or new features. Sometimes, she says, it’s about subtracting. 

“When you design a product, you have to understand why you’re doing it.”

Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer, Humanscale
With Abernethy steering its sustainability initiatives, Humanscale now offers 26 net-positive products certified through the Living Product Challenge. COURTESY HUMANSCALE

This sentiment rings particularly true of her work for Humanscale, where her overarching goal has been to eliminate environmentally harmful products: no more Red List chemicals, which are often found in coatings, finishes, and additives; and no more hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium-6, a highly toxic form of chrome and a known human carcinogen.

Abernethy joined Humanscale in 2007 as an industrial designer with a focus on health care. Sustainability was always top of mind even then, she says. But she quickly learned she would need to have company-wide influence to make a meaningful impact. “Different people have different ideas of what sustainability means. There wasn’t a cohesive approach,” she explains. 

Then, in 2012, Abernethy was named Humanscale’s sustainability officer, a role that has since evolved into the company’s first chief sustainability officer. The company’s approach to environmental design has since become cohesive, accompanied by a groundbreaking set of goals. 

This June, for instance, Humanscale announced that 25 of its products (the list has since grown to 26) were certified climate-, water-, and energy-positive. In other words, 60 percent of the company’s products have a measurable, positive impact on the environment, meaning they give back more than they take. The certification is provided by the Living Future Institute under its Living Product Challenge, which is considered to be the most advanced sustainability standard for materials. 

Building on the success of its Smart Ocean chair, Humanscale recently launched the Liberty Ocean chair, each of which is made with nearly two pounds of reclaimed fishing net. Abernethy says another chair will launch this year. 

As for other measurable goals—lest she be accused of claiming the reward before the hard work—she would like to see the percentage of climate-positive Humanscale products climb from 60 percent to 100 percent. And when it does, the company will have officially made good on its promise to go, as it says, “beyond sustainability.” 

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