Beyond Sustainability as Usual: Inside Humanscale’s Efforts to Improve the World

The office furniture company wants to improve the environment and society, not just reduce harm.

Photo of desk chair on the beach in front of a calm ocean
Humanscale's Smart Ocean task chair incorporates almost two pounds of reclaimed fishing nets. Photo courtesy of Humanscale.

While much of the corporate sustainability world tries to reduce emissions or reach net-zero goals, office furniture company Humanscale has been aiming a step further.

About a decade ago, internal conversations at the company centered around defining what they meant when they said they wanted to be sustainable.

“And where we landed was that we wanted to leave the world better off because we're here,” says Jane Abernethy, chief sustainability officer at Humanscale. “Just doing less harm might not be good enough.”

While it’s better to have some goals around reducing environmental harm than none at all, “it's still going in the wrong direction, just less quickly. It's still not leading us to the future we want,” she adds.

Aiming for Net Positive

To move toward a net positive impact, rather than just reducing harm, Humanscale has established six impact categories:

  1. Healthy Materials
  2. Circularity
  3. Energy/Climate
  4. Water
  5. Conservation/Wildlife Preservation
  6. Social Responsibility

Within each of these categories, Humanscale sets specific goals. Sometimes that involves reducing harm to start, such as by eliminating the use of certain toxic materials, but the ultimate goal is to have a net positive impact. Determining a net positive impact starts with calculating footprints using life cycle assessments, such as calculating carbon footprints and water footprints, and those footprints are then compared to Humanscale’s handprints.

According to the SHINE program at MIT — one of the influences on Humanscale’s impact calculations — “Handprints are changes, relative to business as usual, measured with footprint metrics…You create a positive handprint when you cause a positive change in relation to an area of concern.”For one, rather than simply buying generic carbon offsets to become carbon-neutral, Humanscale supports solar installations through the climate justice non-profit RE-volv. These projects have additional benefits beyond reducing emissions, such as supporting underserved communities and using innovative financing to help others add solar. 

Inspiring Broader Change

In addition to making a positive impact through handprint initiatives, Humanscale prides itself on inspiring positive change beyond its own immediate actions. In 2016, Humanscale started R&D to develop a desk chair that uses ocean plastic, and in 2018 the company launched its Smart Ocean chair, which incorporated almost two pounds of plastic from reclaimed fishing nets. 

While the chairs aren’t entirely made of ocean plastic, Smart Ocean and 28 other Humanscale products — accounting for 75% of the company’s sales — are certified as being climate positive by the International Living Future Institute’s Living Product Challenge. That’s just one of several sustainability-related certifications the company has achieved, most recently becoming a certified B Corp.

These third-party verifications and certifications help give Humanscale the confidence to make sustainability claims, says Abernethy. Meanwhile, many other companies have been shying away from talking about these issues lately — a trend known as greenhushing — due to fear of consumer, media, or political backlash. 

But to make an even greater impact, it helps to spread the word about your environmental and social work, rather than clamming up. It can also help to collaborate with other companies.

For example, in 2017, Humanscale became a founding member of NextWave Plastics, a consortium of 15 organizations that also include well-known brands like Ikea, Dell Technologies, and Logitech, which aims to keep plastics out of the ocean.

“A lot of these issues, when we look at sustainability, they're very systematic. As an individual, I can make changes, and I definitely do; I also in my professional life try to make changes within the company that I operate within; but some of the biggest changes are really systematic. So that group was one I was super excited about,” says Abernethy.

In recent years, a few other furniture companies have joined Humanscale in releasing task chairs that include ocean plastic.

“And that's partly what NextWave is about — getting others on board using ocean plastic and starting to see that as a larger movement,” she explains.

In other words, Smart Ocean “shows the potential for that larger-scale, more systematic influence,” adds Abernethy. “Even though we're not the largest company in our industry, we try to push the boundaries and see if we can pull the industry forward a certain amount.”

This idea of broader, collaborative change has also materialized within Humanscale’s manufacturing footprint. One of the company’s initiatives involves maintaining biodiversity gardens at its manufacturing facilities, and after planting native species at its Nogales, Mexico site, that facility was then able to convince three other neighboring facilities to join this initiative.

“So there's a larger expanse of land where we can plant native species and allow the local biodiversity to still be able to thrive, even though we're operating in that area,” says Abernethy.

Plants in a small garden next to a parking lot
Native plants at Humanscale's Nogales, Mexico manufacturing facility. Photo courtesy of Humanscale.

Swan in pond surrounded by plants
Humanscale's biodiversity garden at its Dublin, Ireland manufacturing facility. Photo courtesy of Humanscale.

Connecting With Customers

While there are altruistic benefits to sustainability, Humanscale has also been able to turn its environmental and social efforts into business benefits, such as by creating strong connections with customers.“There's definitely a market advantage to being at the forefront and to really be leading sustainability,” says Abernethy. “I think that resonates with quite a lot of folks, including a lot of our customers.”

Here too, Humanscale tries to inspire change, which can have the benefit of broadening the company’s impact while forming closer ties with customers. 

“We’ve really tried to emphasize to our customers the amount of influence that they have — that if they make a choice based on sustainability, and let manufacturers know that that's what influenced their choice, it really causes lots of change,” says Abernethy.This approach can even work when customers don’t seem to be prioritizing sustainability initially. 

A buyer might be focused on procuring office furniture and thinking “that's a really separate issue from what's happening in the ocean or from overall environmental impacts,” says Abernethy. But “it's really the case that things are very interconnected. So sometimes we need to make those connections for clients and then we find that they actually do respond very well to that.”

“The stat that really sticks in my mind is that every second breath you take comes from the ocean, just from the amount of oxygen generated from, largely, the plankton and all the small creatures in the ocean,” adds Abernethy. “So the systems are so interconnected, but it’s something that we aren't always aware of. And I think it's something that's useful to bring to life, so when people are making decisions, they can understand the impact of their decisions.”

And for a company like Humanscale, where there’s a B2B component, the opportunity is even larger for Humanscale to connect with these customers, who can then inspire additional change from other suppliers they’re working with.

“We need to have a whole paradigm shift in how we operate in the world. It can't just be individuals that have to make change; it has to be much more systematic than that,” says Abernethy.

Disclosure: Carbon Neutral Copy's parent company, JournoContent LLC, has clients involved in sustainability-related areas, among others. The owner of Carbon Neutral Copy, Jacob (Jake) Safane, has investments in sustainability-related companies, among others.

As such, conflicts of interest related to these and other investments/business relationships, even if unintended, may exist at times. Please email if you'd like further clarification on any issues.

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