Aeron chair [Image Credit: Herman Miller]

Several years ago, when I was still working in government, I often found myself at the White House, attending meetings in arguably the most recognizable building in America. Amidst the grandeur of such an auspicious place, I somehow always caught myself admiring—of all things—the conference room chairs.

I couldn’t help but note how they seemed both classic and modern, sleek in a way that didn’t detract from the majesty of the surroundings but rather complemented its history by bridging old and new. They were the perfect marriage of form and function.

I learned later that they were Herman Miller’s iconic Aeron chair.

Getting to know Herman Miller

A few years later, I was working for the humanitarian organization International Aid in West Michigan. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just 30 minutes from Herman Miller’s headquarters, and many of my neighbors worked and made the daily commute there.

A former boss —who now lived just a few miles away— introduced me to Mike Volkema, the Chairman of Herman Miller, and his amazing wife, Val. I found them to be incredible people filled with character and purpose. We stayed in touch in the years to come, and they even personally supported my early work helping to establish plastic recycling in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Converging on Purpose

Fast forward: It’s 2017, and I am building upon what I learned in Haiti, working on the ocean plastic problem at OceanCycle. We took part in the inaugural meetings of NextWave Plastics—a consortium of companies focused on solving the ocean plastic problem. Herman Miller, with its more than 100-year history and reputation, was a founding member.

In 2019, our friends at Prevented Ocean Plastic introduced us to Polyvisions, a company with the unique ability to turn recycled PET plastic (water bottles) into an engineering-grade material. This material, called DuraPET, can operate as a drop-in replacement for ABS plastics—plastics that are notoriously dicult to recycle but are used regularly in manufacturing many consumer products.

From our work with NextWave, we knew that many companies were looking to integrate ocean-bound material into their products. So we at OceanCycle—knowing the critical role that demand plays in incentivizing community collection—saw the need and matched it with Polyvisions’ potential to speed up the process. Hence, we invited them to be part of our presentation at NextWave’s upcoming meeting.

As we hoped, Herman Miller and other NextWave members were interested in DuraPET, so OceanCycle facilitated introductions and communication between their company’s procurement/engineering teams and Polyvisions. As an already-trusted resource for both companies, OceanCycle was familiar with the needs and strengths of each entity and helped streamline a partnership. We took our knowledge of Polyvisions’ cutting-edge technology and material and brought it to Herman Miller, just as they were exploring ways to integrate ocean-bound materials into their supply chain.

“The scale of the plastic pollution problem cannot be solved by one company or organization alone, so we are constantly looking to connect brands, manufacturers and other experts to break down barriers to ocean-bound plastic supply chain development. In OceanCycle, we found an expert partner who shares our goal of understanding ocean-bound plastic market needs and driving adoption of this material into products.” – Kendall Starkman, Director of NextWave Plastics

Polyvisions and Herman Miller worked closely together in the months following and began molding parts made from DuraPET with Herman Miller’s manufacturer.

“OceanCycle did a great job of pre-screening candidates for us by knowing our capabilities and by understanding the needs of companies that were serious about finding ways to use ocean-bound materials in their products. Because of their introductions to NextWave members and Herman Miller, we were able to expedite the process of testing and molding new parts utilizing our DuraPET graft polymer to replace problematic ABS plastics. Resulting in better sustainability and environmental impact without compromising performance.”  – Rick Wilson, Sales Engineer, Polyvisons.

Testing and re-engineering the plastic into recycled material for new products [GIF courtesy Herman Miller]

A Grander Scope of Impact

Herman Miller decided to integrate this material into their flagship product: the Aeron chair. This signaled a dierent level of commitment from both a technical and purchasing standpoint.

Herman Miller’s classic Aeron chair is held as the gold standard in office furniture and widely recognized as “America’s best-selling chair.” Producing hundreds of thousands of Aeron chairs will drive significant demand for the material OceanCycle certifies, preventing millions of plastic bottles from reaching our oceans. In addition, this demand incentivizes collection, which creates more jobs at the local level and helps families in at-risk coastal communities access more resources and better education for their children.

Purchasing material can profoundly impact coastal communities. However, from our social audits, we know that there are additional areas of need in these vulnerable collector communities. This data led Herman Miller to redirect funds to provide food and safe drinking water systems in the communities where they receive their plastic. They are working to make a longer-term commitment so that as their use of ocean-bound material grows, so will their on-the-ground impact in these communities.

Herman Miller’s iconic Aeron chair body is now made with up to 2.5 lbs of recycled ocean-bound plastic [Image Credit: Herman Miller]

“Herman Miller recognized early on that having consistent and significant demand for material would be critical to standing up a sustainable and reliable supply chain. Our goal was to make a meaningful impact across the supply chain and on the communities that are most impacted by the plastic crisis. Along the way, we built a network of partners like OceanCycle, who rose to the challenge to help us make all of this possible. Together, we expect to continue to increase demand, enabling a sustainable model that reduces marine plastic pollution at a greater scale while also creating economic and social benefits to stakeholders across the supply chain. We can’t solve this crisis alone, and the efforts by many will lead to meaningful impact across the globe.” – Amy Luthman, Core Team Lead, Materials Innovation at Herman Miller

A Community Center drive was made possible by Herman Miller Cares. Locals received bags of food and new water filtration devices. 

Indonesian man walks away with a water filtration device donated by Herman Miller Cares

A member of this local collector community carries his new water filtration device, received from the Community Center set up by Herman Miller Cares.

Purpose helps the marketplace

It took Herman Miller years and a significant financial investment to reengineer their products with recycled ocean-bound material. Rather than locking down the supply chain or requiring Polyvisions not to sell it to any other furniture company—a common corporate practice known as gatekeeping—they instead asked the opposite. They asked Polyvisions to share what they learned on this journey with other furniture companies and make this material available to those who choose to make the switch.

To truly solve the world’s challenges and deal with the global threat of ocean plastic pollution, we need to see this type of leadership from large companies. Firms like Herman Miller can integrate their heritage with new business methods to help the planet and bring a level of sustainability to the marketplace that consumers are more and more expecting.

We hope to see others do the same.