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Grow your packaging, and why sustainability is behind Steelcase's big IT overhaul

Posting in Design

Integrating disparate enterprise applications will be core to a central understanding of progress.

Recently, I had a chance to speak recently with Angela Nahikian, the director of global environmental sustainability for workplace furnishings company Steelcase.

Given her company's strategic focus, it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the two biggest factors in the company's overall sustainability initiatives are how to pick the most environmentally sound materials for its products as well as how to tame the very real transportation impact (big products, big impact) that Steelcase has.

Nahikian says that one of the biggest challenges in her sustainability initiatives is the very simple fact that enterprise technology is not set up to collect, analyze or synthesize the sorts of data she needs to make educated decisions about sustainability.

"We need data and we need patterns," she says.

One example is the building systems data, energy efficiency initiatives and other information that are needed for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) reporting.

This has been the catalyst behind what Nahikian describes as the biggest overhaul of Steelcase's IT infrastructure it has face thus far: an effort that will ultimately take three to four years to come to fruition.

Although the company hasn't really said what, exactly, it's working on, Nahikian says putting systems in place to provide better information across its entire supply chain was one obvious place to make an impact. Putting automated carbon reporting systems place is another consideration.

"Metrics are the conscience of good intentions," Nahikian quips.

Another really cool thing that Steelcase is testing involves its goal to support net-zero packaging initiatives. The company is now growing some of its own packaging, in partnership with a company called EcovativeDesign. Ecovative uses plant materials such as seed husks and mushrooms to create packaging that can be grown as needed and then composted after it's used.

Nahikian says Steelcase is using the material for some elements of its packaging, such as the triangles that are used for protecting corners.

"This stuff appeals to the geek and the gardener," she says.

Incidentally, as I was getting ready to publish this blog entry, I noticed that IBM is also working on a way to use plants to replace on some of the plastics that are being used in packaging. The idea is to create biodegradable plastics that can be recycled multiple times, instead of once, which is the limit involved with trying to recycle plastics made from petroleum-based products.

Here's a video that explains what it's doing:

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure