Thursday, September 27, 2007

Toxic Fabrics Now Safe Enough to Eat: An Example of Innovation for Improved Profits AND Improved Sustainability

In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss the case of once-toxic fabrics used in Steelcase chairs. The Swiss company, Rohner Textil, provided dyed fabrics to Steelcase, but the trimmings of these fabrics could not be disposed of in Switzerland because they had a lot of toxic chemicals - they were classified as toxic waste that had to be shipped to countries with less strict environmental regulations such as Spain. Steelcase and Rohner wanted to come up with fabrics that were not toxic waste, but safe enough for babies to suck on. Rohner hired environmentalist William McDonough and his chemist partner, Michael Baumgart (see McDonough & Partners and MBDC--also see McDonough's Website). They went to the companies that provided dyes and asked to see their books in order to know all about the chemicals they used in their processes. They would not accept "it's proprietary". Sixty companies refused this kind of partnership, but one did: Ciba-Geigy, a Swiss chemical company. They went through the details of 8000 chemicals, and of these found 38 that were safe enough to eat. They found that they could make every color needed by Steelcase except for black. Rohner selected natural fabrics - wool and ramie - and ended up with a truly safe process. When Swiss inspectors came to test their effluent stream, they thought their instruments weren't working. The chemicals they were testing for weren't being detected at all. Then they went to the incoming water stream - Swiss drinking water - and got the normal small positive readings. The effluent was actually cleaner than the incoming drinking water, apparently being filtered by the natural fabrics, without release of harmful chemicals.

The resulting process was not just cleaner - the costs of the product dropped by 20%. They didn't have to spend money to ship trimmings to another country, but could sell them to local farmers to make mulch or insulation. Workers didn't need to wear protective gear to work with the fabrics. And Steelcase could sell furniture with fabrics safe enough to eat. Innovation, economic advantage, and sustainability/environmental responsibility were achieved.

Yes, it's possible to innovate for business growth and profitability while also improving your green, sustainable position and reducing your environmental footprint.

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