Since 1986, the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory program has required approximately 10,000 U.S. manufacturers to report annual release quantities for hundreds of toxic chemicals. This yearly list not only helps the EPA to monitor and enforce the release of certain dangerous chemicals, it also gives journalists and activists the info they need to bring polluters to public attention. In 1991, for example, THE ATLANTA JOURNAL AND CONSTITUTION was able to include Herman Miller Inc. — maker of the famous Aeron chair — in an article entitled “Your Toxic Neighbors: Progress on Pollution.” According to the article, the office-furniture manufacturer was a “small generator” of acetone, which the company used for cleaning at its area plant.
This 1991 snafu was rare for Herman Miller, which according to BUSINESS ETHICS magazine, has won mostly praise for its environmental policies. In 1995, for example, the company discontinued use of wood from tropical forests. Today, it recycles nearly all manufacturing waste, uses wood scraps to generate heat for its Michigan headquarters, and even buys back and re-sells its old products to keep them from the dump. Recently, Herman Miller built a Michigan factory that cuts energy costs by 30 percent through solar power. Its most radical experiment to date is a protocol that requires engineers to use only materials of low or zero toxicity in new furniture designs.