An Interview with Jane Abernethy, LEED AP, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale
| August 21, 2019 | By E&I Cooperative Services
We sat down with Jane Abernethy, LEED AP, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale to discuss the company’s commitment to sustainability in both their manufacturing processes and internal practices, and how other organizations can build their own robust sustainability program.
Tell us a little about Humanscale’s commitment to sustainability. What is the focus of your program?
At Humanscale, we believe that less bad is not good enough, so we aim to make the world better off as we operate. Most companies have goals to reduce their negative impact, which is necessary, of course. But this will never get us to a better world. It still leaves companies doing harm, just less of it. We see reducing our negative impact as a starting point and then we aim to go beyond that to actually having an overall net positive impact. We want to leave the world better off because of our activities.
To understand if we’re meeting that commitment, we track our negative impacts (footprints) and we also track positive impacts (handprints) using the same metrics. Once we have created larger handprints than footprints, we would be net positive. To that end, we’ve implemented a number of positive projects. Our main manufacturing plant installed the largest solar system we could get a permit for, we’ve removed chemicals of concern from our products, and we’ve incorporated recaptured fishing nets into the plastic used to make our chairs. We’re working with a few other manufacturers who really value sustainability through the S.H.I.N.E program at M.I.T and as a founding member of NextWave.
The depth of our commitment requires significant internal support. Our CEO and Founder, Bob King, has always been passionate about sustainability and is willing to take on the challenges of being truly sustainable. That Humanscale has a position of Chief Sustainability Officer shows that it is valued on par with other key roles like marketing and finance. It’s embedded into how we develop products and how we operate.
How did you get started on a sustainability program?
First you need to understand your impact.
Depending on your specific activities, you may have significant impacts in different areas such as water, energy, climate, waste going to landfill, toxic materials, impeding on wildlife, or social impacts like diversity, child labor, or forced labor. Understand where you’re at and how you’re doing. How much waste do you make? How much water are you using? Measuring your impact in different categories gives you a sense of how you’re operating. A deep evaluation combined with reviewing the priorities of your stakeholders will give you a good sense of what to focus on first.
After that, you’ll want to manage inefficiencies, which can help across different departments. When done right, this can lead to financial savings and have a lasting impact. There is an abundance in the world, and part of the reason why we don’t feel it is because we’re so inefficient with how we use our resources. There’s almost always room for becoming more efficient, and that’s low-hanging fruit that can help get people behind sustainability initiatives. It’s not the whole sustainability program, but it’s a good starting point.
Diverting materials from landfills, for example. We found that there was a cost savings we could quantify by sending less to landfills. So, when we were making sure this is a robust program, but also one that appeals to our Operations and Finances teams, this was something that they are also aligned with.
It’s important to start with projects that have a reasonable chance of success, and then build on those successes. It’s also important to have buy-in from all the different groups who will be involved, to understand how they will be impacted, and make sure it’s not going to make their lives difficult. This is just as important to understand as the financial implications.
How do you promote sustainability within Humanscale? What strategies/methods have you employed to attain buy-in within your organization?
Our CEO is very supportive, which goes a long way. People know that sustainability is a priority for the company, and we’ve been able to build it into our major operating systems, like product development and sourcing. I find it’s really useful to roll a sustainability program into existing systems. Instead of having my team at odds with other teams, we work together to figure it out. For example, we have a long supply chain and need to evaluate our suppliers. Our Quality Team audits our suppliers anyway, so we work with them on our sustainability priorities and, while they’re onsite, they can look for things that might be an issue for sustainability.
Another thing we’ve done is incorporate it into our design process. New product design can be eighteen months from first idea to launch. You don’t want to come in at the end and say, “Oh, you did it all wrong! Start again!” So, we get involved from the first rotation all the way through to the end. We try to be proactive and feed into the existing mechanisms and systems that are in place, but of course, once in a while we have to hold people accountable.
There’s also a lot of value in getting someone really excited and passionate about sustainability, which can be more effective for managing the program on an everyday basis. I developed an internal sustainability group, which is charged with creating a culture of sustainability. They are regularly trained on our program and on sustainability topics. We have a platform on which they communicate with each other and take on different events and challenges. We can see from these activities how effective the program is and what the employees have done.
Have you experienced any misconceptions or challenges regarding sustainability? How have you responded?
Yes, definitely. When I find people have misconceptions, I try and understand why they think that way and where it’s coming from, then have the conversation from there.
But there’s a difference between having an honest misconception and not being passionate about sustainability. There may be a person who’s been doing their role for years and they’re not looking for someone to tell them how to do it differently. There’s a little bit of resistance, but it’s not insurmountable.
Not every person in our company affects our sustainability initiative equally, so there’s certain folks with whom we need to engage in a deeper way. Some of them may get engaged on their own or through social responsibility, but for some, it’s just not something that inspires them. Maybe they need to have more input, or we need to see if what we’re asking them to do is causing something else they do to be more difficult, but we must figure out how to accommodate them. The more I can tie into what they’re already doing and find the path of least resistance, the better.
What are some of the sustainability trends you’re seeing?
Sustainability is always evolving. A couple decades ago it meant the three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle – and then it meant the ozone layer. Most recently, I’m seeing healthy materials and the concern around chemicals of concern being used in mass production, which are not well regulated by the EPA. With buildings becoming better sealed and more energy efficient, everything that’s indoors stays there. That means we’re more effected by the products we put inside.
I’m starting to see a shift in sustainability to include social impacts. Those make good stories and they resonate with people. I also think the recent information around climate change and the challenges that go with it will be something people continue to talk about.
What are your future plans and how will you continue to grow the program?
We aim to be net positive. The big impact categories for us are use of resources, healthy materials, wildlife preservation, social impact, climate, water, and energy. We have metrics around these, but what is the scope we should look at when doing our calculations? Do we calculate the activities of the logistics companies shipping our goods? Do we calculate the activities of our suppliers? There’s a world of difference depending on these factors.
For example, in our own factories, we reuse water continually. We have no waste water discharge. It’s a really efficient system – in the U.S., we use 7 gallons of water a day (the same amount used, on average, in a three-minute shower). We own the building and that entire system, so we can set it up however we choose. But if we go to our suppliers two or three levels deep, it’s harder to have direct input. If we start expanding into our supply chain, these numbers change. For just two of our products, for which we use 2,000 gallons of water a year to produce, our supply chain uses 25 million. We need to think about where to draw the line regarding what to include in our calculations. We’re working to figure out how to define this while making internal goals for achieving progress.
We want the world to be better off in a meaningful, measurable way. Internally, we have goals for our operations, what our factories are supposed to do this year and in three years, and it’s all aimed at being net positive.
At what point is the world better off because we’re here? That, to me, is the ultimate goal. So, that means you calculate how much damage you’re doing – your footprint – and how much positive impact you’re having – your handprint. Then, you put these together and figure out if you’re in the positive or not. It’s kind of like banking. Yes, you’re going to have withdrawals, but you’re also going to have deposits.
And at the end of the day, you always want to do more good than harm.
About the Author
Jane Abernethy, LEED AP, is the Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale, the premiere designer and manufacturer of comfortable, health-conscious ergonomic furniture. Jane was named among Green Building & Design’s 2018 Women in Sustainability Leadership Award winners.