contributed by Julie Weber [designer / explorer / cubicle expert]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Haven’t read Part 1 of the Big [Green] Dreams series” Then do so here because we’re going to jump right in…
It was a typical afternoon in the life of a designer at a furniture dealership. I was sitting at my desk drawing cubicles with when my boss called me into her office. “I have a very exciting project for you,” she said to me.
“Barb has a client that wants to go for LEED certification, and I thought that would be right up your alley.” I smiled and nodded. It would be.
LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. In the United States, LEED certification is the recognized third party standard for measuring a building’s sustainability. It is an imperfect system, but it’s the only one we have at the moment, and all around the nation LEED has been gaining momentum in the Architectural community. Now consumers are even starting to ask for it, and they are starting to expect that we, furniture dealers, understand and comply with LEED requirements with our furniture solutions.
So, in essence, by working on a project that was attempting to get LEED certified I could try and do some good. I could be a part of an environmentally responsible project. No PVC for me. I was thrilled.
Barb and I spent weeks brainstorming. We researched products that would help accumulate points towards LEED certification, and we proposed C2C certified furniture, which follows the principles developed by McDonough and Braungart. We calculated recycled content in each chair and figured out if the manufacturing plants where the furniture was being made were within 500 miles of the job site. All of these factors would have helped them achieve LEED certification, but when the numbers came back, the project was over budget.
“He had the nerve to yell at me for the numbers being too high, and I said to him, look, you wanted LEED and so we proposed products that would meet those specifications…and they come at a premium cost,” Barb said to me after a heated talk with the client.
“So they had a budget all along and didn’t share it with us”” I asked.
“That makes no sense,” I said, frustration ringing in my voice. And I was upset for good reason. Higher levels of LEED certification, such as Platinum, do have additional cost associated with them and should be budgeted for accordingly. The fact that this client in particular actually goes out there and builds buildings, yet still didn’t understand this concept, was infuriating to me.
“I know,” she said. “I know, and they just don’t get it.”
And so another project filled with PVC was created, and all of my hard work was for nothing. I sulked in my ergonomically-correct task chair and turned on my IPod. I stared at the jet-black AutoCAD canvas and was stuck. Again questions about my career path danced through my mind. What now” The client would go with another furniture dealer who was not concerned with the chemical make-up of their products, and that would be that.
The certification is out there, but so many people hesitate to commit to the cost or the effort it will take to follow the criteria, and so we, as a community—an industry—fail.
“Sorry about the meeting minutes from last month,” I said to the three other members of the Forrer Strategic Business Interiors “Green Team.” Bob, Elaine and Jenny were sitting across from me in the training room, eating their bag lunches and listening intently. They all laughed and offered their objections. Not a big deal, other things to worry about…etc. We are only allowed to conduct Green Team business on our own time, so it was no wonder I didn’t get the minutes typed up.
“Let’s start out today’s meeting by talking about the action items from last week…Bob, you can start,” I said.
“Well,” he said in his typical slow and steady manner, “I have compiled a list of charities that will sometimes take old furniture, along with a list of vendors that will buy back the steel or the furniture for re-sale.” With that he passed around the list so we all had a copy.
“This is a great start,” I said.
“Just remember,” he continued, “that most of these charities need someone to come in and dismantle the furniture they want and then re-install it at their site…pretty much meaning our guys.”
He sat back in his chair, his face stoic. He was our most experienced member of the team with over twenty years of facility management under his belt. He adjusted his wire-framed glasses and grabbed his peanut butter sandwich.
“Which means that it would be on our time and cost us money,” Elaine said.
Her green eyes were intense and vibrant, her mouth half full of her last bite of apple. She wiped her hands on her large seven-month-pregnant belly and waited for a response.
“Yeah, and many of the furniture or steel vendors will only talk with us if we have fifty used workstations or more…nothing less,” Bob finished.
We had already tossed around the idea of creating our own auction or having a giant “yard sale” and neither idea was very plausible without money and resources. It seemed that trying to help our customers get rid of their old furniture was going to be harder than we thought, and it was supposed to be the main focus of our Green Team. But there were only four of us.
“I know we need to come up with some more ideas for furniture re-use and disposal, but can we switch topics and talk about the Styrofoam cups for a bit”” I asked.
Bob smiled and pulled a big opaque plastic looking bag out from under the table and dropped it before us. It was filled with various sizes of cups, plates and utensils.
“I went ahead and ordered a trial run of the paper cups from that company you sent me, Julie.”
“What company”” asked Jenny. She tucked her light brown hair behind her ear and readied her pencil to take down the name.
“Green Goods, or something like that, right”” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “They sent me this bag of samples and a nice handwritten thank you card.”
“That is so sweet!” I said.
He passed the card to Elaine and started to unload the contents of the bag, a “biobag” to be exact; a biodegradable corn-based garbage bag. Inside, there were several sizes of paper plates, a recyclable plastic drinking cup, and various sizes of paper cups for hot beverages. There were even potato-based utensils – forks, knives and spoons that will biodegrade in a compost pile (not that we had one). It was like a tree hugger’s dream. To think that we could completely eliminate Styrofoam and non-recyclable plastic from the company by using these products was exhilarating.
“They are all significantly more expensive,” Bob said, reading my thoughts and raining on my parade. “You know how the executives feel about spending money on this green stuff.”
“Well it’s a first step,” Elaine said. We all nodded our heads in agreement.
The next day during the lunch hour, I walked past the filtered water dispenser and saw a nice wicker serving tray loaded with our new paper cups. The cups were white with little green trees printed on them, an obvious indicator that they were Earth friendly. Bob had taped a nice, short message to the tray: “Think Green. When possible, use a glass or mug before using one of these cups.”
It was a start. Six months after forming the “Green Team” we had done something. No more Styrofoam drinking cups. Now we just had to come up with a way to keep furniture out of the landfills.
The bigger question that crossed my mind after my two minutes of satisfaction was this: did we really help by doing this” Is cutting down a tree or planting more corn really a better way to sustain the Earth” Will people use two paper cups rather than one Styrofoam cup because their coffee is too hot” Did we do enough research into the practices of the manufacturer”
“Albert Einstein observed, if we are to solve the problems that plague us, our thinking must evolve beyond the level we were using when we created those problems in the first place” (McDonough and Braungart 165). Had my thinking evolved” Had I evolved past the interior designer I once was”
I can turn off my monitors at night, use a paper cup, specify C2C certified products and use my own cloth bags for groceries, but I can’t change the world. I can’t change my client’s budgets. Can I continue to survive in a profit driven industry and still do some good”
These questions haunt me at the grocery store, in my boss’s office and at our Green Team meetings. Perhaps I will never find the answers. But I will continue to have big dreams even if I only get small victories.
“Nice cups,” Mary, a fellow designer, said to me as she walked by the tray. “It’s about time.”More To Come
Stay tuned for next month when we’ll publish the final installment in the Big [Green] Dreams series: Real Progress.