For Humanscale, Sustainability Is More Than Just a Buzzword

As the first-ever Chief Sustainability Officer of the furniture company, designer Jane Abernethy is building a positive impact from inside the industry.

Jane Abernethy, Chief Sustainability Officer at Humanscale.

What if a company was so sustainable it did more than reduce its impact on the Earth—it actually gave back? That’s the challenge Humanscale undertook with the recent appointment of its first Chief Sustainability Officer, designer Jane Abernethy. In her new role, Abernethy is focused on more than reducing the company’s environmental footprint—she’s after a new type of sustainability focused on a positive “handprint” that gives back more than it takes. From waste-cutting measures at the brand’s New Jersey manufacturing center (which utilizes reclaimed rainwater and solar energy) to innovative materials to tackling the tougher issue of culture change, Abernethy explains how she and Humanscale are making a positive impact.

Humanscale has a long history of sustainability efforts, but your appointment this year to CSO marks a new commitment. Where is Humanscale on its sustainability journey at this point?

Bob King, our CEO and founder, has always been passionate about the environment. So when I started in my role leading sustainability, I saw that there were different ideas being expressed in different departments, but not a cohesive program and vision of what we’re aiming towards. [The first challenge was] trying to understand where we stood on a number of metrics: We might feel strongly about something, but are we actually doing well in that area?

We’re still aiming toward this vision of doing more good than harm, of having a Net Positive impact, and being an overall benefit to the world as we operate. We’re the only company to achieve the entire Living Project Challenge [with the brand’s Diffrient Smart chair and Float table]. It shows how far we are along that journey, but I wouldn’t say we’re 100 percent there.

Humanscale's Smart Ocean chair, made from recycled fishing nets.

The Smart Ocean chair, which incorporates materials from reclaimed fishing nets, is one example of sustainability thinking in a product. How does it work?

The Smart Ocean is made in  partnership with Bureo,  an emerging venture that work on the ground with local fishermen in Chile to capture and transform recycled ocean fishing nets. Although fishing nets make up about 10 percent of ocean plastic, they’re four times as damaging as the rest of the plastic combined, because they’re designed to catch fish—and they continue to do that. It’s called ghost fishing. Once they break down, they can be eaten…

We start off with one component; the goal is to build it all out in order to use it in as many products as possible. This particular kind of recycling involves getting the nets, melting them down, turning them into pellets, melting them down, injecting, and molding them into components. That’s called mechanical recycling, and it’s been around for a long time. The innovation really wasn’t a technological one—it was really taking the time and shifting the perception of fishing nets so that they are seen as a resource, instead of waste. Sometimes it seems like we need new technologies to solve environmental issues; I think that may contribute, but a big part of it involve culture and industry thought as well. That’s the innovation.

Plastic pellets made from fishing nets.

How much of your work is about educating the consumer?

When I start with folks that might not have already been thinking about it, I like to highlight that we spend all of our time indoors…we’re surrounded by our manufactured goods the whole time…so it’s not strange to think that what those goods are made up of are going to influence us. Even though people say, “Well, I don’t eat my chair,” you actually may be finding it in your body a lot more than you might think. 

What advice would you give to design professionals who aren’t yet engaged in sustainable practices?

Everything is too difficult and expensive until you find a way to make it happen. There are a lot of grand visions and really good ideas, but it seemed important to us to start off with achieving something very realistic, take off a bite size…build on that, then build on the next step, and the next step. It may be worth thinking through where you want to get to in a larger vision, but that can take years—and that’s not a problem.

Surface Studios is the brand marketing unit of Surface Media.

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