View from the C-Suite: Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett

Steelcase Inc. is the world's largest supplier of office furniture. The Grand Rapids, Mich., based company was founded nearly 100 years ago as The Metal Office Furniture Company. At the time, the company specialized in file cabinets and safes.

Today, Steelcase generates revenues of $2.4 billion through sales of interior architecture, furniture and technology products and employs about 10,000 people. The company is working to advance sustainable design through innovations in materials chemistry, lifecycle assessments, and reusability.

Heather King talks with CEO Jim Hackett about challenges in making non-toxic furniture, end of life options for the "Think Chair," and his vision for increasingly virtual, mobile work places.

Heather King: Earlier this month, Joel Makower spoke with your Director of Global Sustainability, Angela Nahikian about Steelcase's broad-based sustainability efforts. In your view, what is the business case for Steelcase's sustainability investment?

Jim Hackett: At the broadest level, it's the notion that to compete, an enterprise has to be really fit. We use the word 'fitness' in a natural order kind of way. The market is always elevating its requirements for fitness. Years ago, in long discussions with Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, it became clear to me that the sustainability was going to be one of those fitness tests.

We considered the material choices of our products and asked ourselves, "To what extent should our customers expect -- and the world expect – that the things they buy from Steelcase consider their health, or the health of their environment?" It's a very complex problem to design and deliver products that have no toxic implications.

We've been able to achieve a product certifications that reveal our ability to eliminate and avoid some of the most problematic materials or concern. There are mainstream brands in our industry and other industries where that's not the case. There are plenty of things inside products that aren't safe and sustainable and safe.

HK: So it sounds like your primary driver was reducing the risks associated with toxic materials in your products or supply chains?

JH: hat's exactly right. We see it as a way to compete and anticipate greater focus on supply chains. Just as companies look for economic advantage in lower cost supply chains, they need a parallel focus on managing the chemistry in these products. They have to be safe for humans and the environment.

HK: What do you see as your most important product innovation to date?

JH: We have multiple examples of important innovations. Some are internal such as bringing the sheathing around the many electrical components in our products to higher standards. Some are more visible such as polyvinyl that is used to band work surfaces. There are probably 50 different aspects in a product that need to be addressed to meet Cradle-to-Cradle requirements. It takes a lot of work.

We are fortunate in that steel is a wonderfully sustainable material. Steel recycles well and its manufacturing process can be sustainable, depending how the mills are built and operated.