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 Inspiration Office

Rethinking designs, sustainably.

While sustainability and the creation of sustainable products may be at the forefront of our minds, in practice, creating designs that use fewer resources is a daunting task.

“This complex problem requires people in many different roles working together and challenging each other – rethinking traditional ways of doing things and re-examining processes to build new systems that lead to better, more sustainable futures,” says Steelcase.

“It is our moral and ethical obligation to society, to think about the environment in everything we create, consume or use,” says Michael Held, Steelcase vice president of global design. “We are constantly evolving how we develop products because there are hidden costs to us as a society behind every innovation.” 

At Steelcase, designers, engineers, scientists and manufacturers are constantly pushing to improve their sustainable product design process, taking responsibility for what they use – and produce.

“Our overall sustainability strategy is three-pronged,” says Mary Ellen Mika, Steelcase director of sustainability. “Reduce our carbon footprint, design for circularity and choose and use materials responsibly. All of the day-to-day choices we make need to be consistent with, and make progress toward these three goals.”

“Our experience is that doing good for the planet is also good for business, which is why we’re sharing what we’re learning with our suppliers, partners and other stakeholders,” notes Allan Smith, Steelcase chief revenue officer. “It creates value through new opportunities for innovation and streams of revenue, which allows us to better serve customers making business decisions around this issue, and, at the same time, benefit the greater global community.”

So what did Steelcase learn?

First, to produce using the least amount of material necessary to reduce their carbon footprint.

Steelcase Karman® is the outcome of this approach – weighing just 13 kilograms, it is not only one of the lightest task chairs in the industry but’s also incredibly strong.

Similarly, the team figured out how to make the Migration SE height-adjustable desk lighter yet just as durable.

The Steelcase Flex Perch Stool, meanwhile, is the outcome of exploring a new type of plastic with BASF, made from a diverted waste stream generated during electronics production. The material performs like virgin plastics, is 100% recyclable and keeps electronic waste out of landfills. 

Why is this so important? Well, less weight and fewer materials means less fuel for transport, fewer resources for production and less environmental impact. 

“Our goal of choosing and using materials responsibly means exploring a broad range of options that we might not have considered or weren’t available in the past,” says Mika.

“The ‘right’ material used to be mostly about purity and performance – creating a new object without flaws. Customers and designers care about quality and durability, and also value materials with more recycled content – ones that are easily recycled and safe for people.”

Second, Steelcase focuses on designing for circularity.

Designing for circularity is a complex goal, says Steelcase, explaining that Instead of only focusing on how a product performs during its life, all parts of the product’s lifecycle are considered – including how much energy is used to build it, how it’s shipped and what happens at the end of use. 

“Too many products that could get recycled don’t,” notes Held. “Some products are theoretically recyclable, but effectively they aren’t. So we focus on designing for easy disassembly, which makes it easier to repair or refurbish and extend the use of the product, and to get it into the proper recycling stream if necessary.”

Take Steelcase Flex Active Frames, for instance, it is designed to be assembled and disassembled with only one tool, increasing the chances of it being reused or recycled, and can be shipped flat-packed, lowering carbon emissions. 

Similarly, Steelcase’s prefabricated wall system, Everwall, is designed for modularity with the ability to adapt as workplace needs change. Its components are created as a kit of parts, made with recyclable materials like glass, steel and aluminium and it’s 100% reusable.

“Sustainable design requires team thinking across all aspects of a product’s lifecycle and working with a broad range of partners to find new technologies, materials and processes. Sometimes what feels like a small change can have a huge collective impact. It’s a journey of ongoing experimentation, learning — and being open to sharing — so we can make a difference. Together,” concludes Steelcase.

Steelcase is locally available from Inspiration Office. Founded in 2005, Inspiration Office was established to provide the South African market with bespoke workstation solutions, offering smart furniture and accessory solutions from leading international brands such as Steelcase, Orangebox and PolyVision.

Contact:  Inspiration Office

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