To do or not to do: The case of Herman and Miller

The vision statement of Herman and Miller states:

At Herman Miller we believe the future quality of human life is dependent on both economic vitality and a healthy, sustainable natural environment. We do not see these goals as mutually exclusive, but inextricably linked. Mankind’s future depends on meeting the needs and aspirations of a growing global population, while enhancing and protecting the ecosystem on which all life depends.

In actualizing its mission to develop ecologically responsible products Herman and Miller adopted the Cradle to Cradle model which prescribes an Eco-effective approach of developing products as opposed to Eco-efficient ways, the latter characterized by incrementally improving the systems for lesser wastage, one that does good by doing less bad. In the former however, new industrial systems are designed to not pollute, its components such that, at the end of their life, they are promoted in the development cycle through recycling, upcycling or through natural bio-degradation. Its motto is waste equals food!

The ‘Design for Environment’ division at Herman and Miller sought to implement C2C by abiding by the following key principles:

To do or not to do?

In 2001, the company was faced with a crucial choice: whether to use PVC in the armpad skins of the new Mirra chair, the first ever product supposed to abide by the C2C principles. PVC was the category red, the absolute NO-NO as per the C2C standards Miller subscribed to. As an alternative, Miller team identified TPU (Thermoplastic urethane) as a greener replacement, but that meant trade offs!

When in doubt, we make tables, listing the pros and cons of the alternatives:

Source: Author’s class notes and HBR case

Herein, these parameters hold varying degrees of weight. For instance, from the PR perspective, the shifting of launch date might send a message of all ‘not being well’.

The Tatas in India shifted the Nano plant from West Bengal to Gujarat swiftly in order to be be able to launch their car in time.

Moreover, producing a product with an element, a crucial one in this case, the performance of which was not well known and untested would have been a huge leap of faith.

At the same time, sticking to the organizational goals and practice what they preach would have been equally important.

What did Herman Miller did?

It replaced PVC with TPU and managed the launch data dilemma with a PR activity ;)

Change Management

The radical change of materials, processes and business models form a part of eco-effectiveness and requires a much more invested management and organization, one in whose vision and culture, such values are embedded.

Herman and Miller, naturally imbued these qualities since long before. It didn’t need a change management process. However, most organizations, need to be redirected towards the right path.

Typically, when you want a change in any organization and new pathway is radically different, there’s a huge resistance from management. It’s natural. It’s human. In order to manage that resistance, you need Trojan horse strategies.

As a metaphor, a “Trojan horse” means any trick or deception that causes your target to do something they otherwise would have resisted. In the greek history, The great Odysseus built a wooden horse as a gift to the city of Athenas while secretly hiding soldiers inside it which ultimately helped him win the battle against the Troy.

Climate change is a reality which not many choose to either believe it or remain impervious to the effects. How do we make them realize? By talking about the gruesome stats or the natural disasters or the melting ice cap?
Talking or schooling won’t help for the mind remains closed to another perspective. A trojan horse strategy in this case would be a ‘trip’ to a place most affected by climate change, for eg. Antarctica. Seeing is believing.

The blog is the part of series ‘Lessons in Sustainability’ and comprises of class discussions and key insights from readings, at IIML. The next blog in continuation is going to be on bio mimicry- learning from nature :).

Sources and Credits:

I believe in the sustainable way of living and giving back to the nature. Constantly on the lookout to reduce, replace and refurbish.