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Combating Global Warming through office furniture production?

September 23, 2010

Last week it was announced that the West Michigan office furniture company Steelcase was ranked #1 in the Home and Office Furniture Industry for its efforts in combating climate change.

The New Hampshire group Climate Counts, has its own scorecard system to measure individual companies and how they are reducing greenhouse gases.

Steelcase was ranked number one in their industry sector because of their investment in wind energy production and the use of new bio-degradable packing for their products.

While these action may seem like the company is making changes that will reduce greenhouse gases it doesn’t address the more systemic problems of production and consumption.

Steelcase, like any other capitalist enterprise is committed to constant growth and is continually making new products. Office furniture is their main focus of production and in order for Steelcase to continue as a corporate entity they have to figure out ways to keep selling office furniture.

The question one could ask is how much office furniture do we actually need? Their products, like so many in the industrial world, are not built to last, thus perpetuating the need to consume. Steelcase is also always coming up with “new designs” so that consumers will always feel the need to upgrade their office furniture, even if the current furniture they own is fully functional.

Then there is the issue of cost. In looking at their products online I was a little shocked at the cost of items as simple as an office chair. Their Leap office chair goes for $849, which is the same amount of money that many working class people will make in a month.

Then there are newer products like walk stations. Walk stations are a mix between a treadmill and a work desk, which allows people to exercise while working at their computers. These items run a mere $4,000 plus. So, on top of the lack of longevity of their products, the costs contribute to a vicious cycle of economic dependency.

One other area that is not included in the award to the West Michigan office furniture manufacturer is resource extraction. While the company might be using bio-degradable packing material there is no acknowledgement of the resources used to make their furniture – wood, metal and plastics, all which contribute to deforestation, oil and mineral extraction. And this is not one of the criteria included when groups like Climate Counts does assessments of corporate behavior.

Climate Counts is a non-profit entity that is part of a growing sector of agencies that are designed to make the public feel as if the corporate world was actually doing something significant to challenge global warming.

Climate Counts sees “business as having the power to change the world,” thus they work in conjunction companies and ultimately act as a buffer against civil society that might demand more radical change.

In fact, Climate Counts does not see people as citizens or agents of change. People are nothing more than “consumers.” On their home page, Climate Counts states that they “fight climate change by helping consumers with their choices and voices to put pressure on the world’s largest companies to take corporate climate action.” But what does this actually mean?

One example that Climate Counts gives is getting McDonald’s to reduce some of its energy use at their fast food facilities in order to reduce global warming. Again, on the surface this might seem like a positive things, but if we were really serious about reducing carbon emissions fast food would not be part of our future. Fast food by its very nature is unsustainable.

The same can be said for the office furniture maker Steelcase, which if we were serious about what role it would play in truly reducing global warming then we would have to talk about the fact that it can not be a positive force for carbon reduction until it stopped making expensive, unsustainable products.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    September 24, 2010 5:24 pm

    To show how ridiculous some of these green awards and certifications are, check out how Steelcase touts its Greenguard ratings. Greenguard is a company that tests office furniture to see how toxic it is. That’s right: office furniture can make the air inside an office building up to 100 times as toxic as outdoor air.

    The chemicals used to make office furniture, such as formaldehyde and other volatile chemicals, “off-gas” or emit fumes and particles after manufacturing. Workers breathe in those fumes and particules. As the furniture gets older, it breaks down more.

    You have to pay Greenguard to get their seal of approval, and not just once. You have to pay an initial fee for each product category; then a separate fee for the testing; and then a yearly fee to continue to test products as they age.

    Steelcase started to brag about its “low-emitting” Greenguard ratings in the early 2000s. Here’s a page that shows how many of its products it has paid to have tested currently:

    So, in addition to unsustainable levels of manufacturing, another question would be why a “green” company would be using damaging toxins to make its products (answer: lower cost, higher profit).

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