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Interview with Herman Miller & USG Corporation on being a “CSR veteran”

February 7, 2011

The following article originally appeared on the Forbes.com CSR blog,by James Epstein-Reeves.

For some companies, CSR is old news.  Active long before “CSR” and “Sustainability” became buzzwords, these “CSR veteran companies” have a deep history of changing business operations to address the social and environmental impacts of their business operations. In this series on CSR veterans, we’re going to highlight three of these “veteran” companies: USG Corporation, Herman Miller, and Burt’s Bees.

To start out, we “sat down” with Al Zucco who is the Sr. Director, Energy & Sustainability at USG Corporation and John Kim who is the Better World Marketing Manger for Herman Miller. In today’s piece, Al and John will give some background on their respective companies and talk about some of the unique challenges they face. In tomorrow’s article, Al & John will discuss how their companies have handled their sustainability efforts in the tough economy, how they communicate value to their customers when they’re a business-to-business company, and whether they think we will ever see a CEO emerge with a background in CSR.

We will conclude this series with a fascinating interview with the President & CEO of Burt’s Bees, John Replogle.

First, can you give us some background on your company – who are your key customers, type of products, etc.

Al Zucco: For more than 100 years, Chicago-based USG has been a leader in producing innovative products and systems to build the environments in which we live, work and play.  As the inventor of wallboard and mineral wool ceiling tile, USG created North America’s building materials industry.  Our products are used in everything from major commercial developments and residential housing to simple home improvements.  Our flagship brands include SHEETROCK Brand gypsum panels and DUROCK cement board, which are recognized around the world.

USG is North America’s leading producer of gypsum wallboard, joint compound and a vast array of related products for the construction and remodeling industries. We are also the global leader in the manufacture of ceiling suspension systems and are recognized as the premier acoustical panel and specialty ceiling systems innovator.  Our family of products provides creative building solutions that set new standards for productivity and efficiency, helping contractors and architects deliver high quality and innovative designs. Finally, USG, through its subsidiary L&W Supply, is also the nation’s largest distributor of drywall and related building products.

Our steadfast commitment to the company’s core business beliefs – safety, integrity, service, innovation, diversity, efficiency and quality – have helped us become the industry leading company we are today.  USG’s 10,000 employees working in more than 30 countries are dedicated to helping our customers and partners achieve success.  We are committed to the highest levels of customer satisfaction and quality in everything we do.

John Kim: One way to provide some context to all of your questions is to say that we at Herman Miller all work ultimately for a better world around you.  We do that by designing and developing furniture and related services and technologies that improve your environment, whether it’s an office, hospital, school, home, an entire building, or the world at large.  We also do that by being good stewards of the environment, celebrating diversity, and being good members of our communities, wherever we are around the world.

We’re an industry leader in office furniture and seating products.  Some of our more well-known products are the Aeron chair and the mid-century modern classics by designers like Eames, Nelson and Girard.  Our primary customers are architects and designers specializing in office interiors, educational spaces, healthcare, and more. We sell to the retail market via retailers and our newly launched online store. Herman Miller is a publicly trade company and in FY 2010 had revenues of $1.3 billion.

How and when did sustainability start at your company? Why was it seen as something important before “sustainability” became a buzz word? Who were the key players?

Al Zucco: Al USG has been a sustainable company for more than a century; long before the words “sustainability” and “green” became commonplace. USG recognized that effectively balancing environmental, economic and social factors is essential to create long-term value for the corporation. We are committed to understanding and reducing our impact on the environment, while creating value for our customers and shareholders through increased efficiencies and cost savings.

Since we define sustainability using a triple bottom line approach, our efforts are driven by employees in every level in our organization, both in the United States and around the world in concert with the needs of our customers and other stakeholders including the society in which we live.

John Kim: Like community service, inclusiveness and diversity, and health and well-being, environmental advocacy at Herman Miller began with corporate values first put into words by the founder of our company, DJ De Pree. In 1953, DJ said that Herman Miller “will be a good corporate neighbor by being a good steward of the environment.” We have been working toward that goal ever since.

DJ also had other ideas ahead of their time—windows in all company buildings, including manufacturing facilities, and requiring that 50 percent of any Herman Miller corporate site be set aside as “green space.”

In the late 1980’s we were only of the early adopters of a team-based approach to environmental leadership in the form of our Environmental Quality and Action Team (EQAT).  This team, with members representing all parts of the company, sets the goals and mission of the environmental program.  In 1993 this group first used the term sustainability when setting its goals.

As a “veteran company” in the field, what sort of challenges do you face that are unique to companies like yours?

Al Zucco: As the leading producer of gypsum wallboard, joint compound and a variety of related products for the construction and remodeling industries in North America, we have taken a leadership role driving sustainable practices throughout our industry.  Some of the unique challenges for companies like ours include developing standards that drive sustainability throughout our industry, educating stakeholders on building science and the attributes that contribute to building sustainable spaces and contributing to the health, safety and success of our customers, communities and surroundings.

John Kim: Communicating our history and our current efforts to be a more sustainable company is a big challenge.  It’s a unique challenge for us though not because of the lack of content but more due to the culture of the company; we’re a very modest company and have never been good at sharing the good things we do with external audiences.  Sharing these efforts, things we do because we think they’re the right things to do, while still maintaining the Herman Miller brand and culture, is a challenge.  On a more practical side, one of our main challenges now is overcoming that last 10 percent towards our 2020 goals.  EQAT set the 2020 goals based on a 1994 baseline that requires that we eliminate all Landfill, Air Emissions, Water Use and Hazardous Waste while using 100% Renewable Electrical power.  We have accomplished the first 90 percent which was certainly not easy, but it’s the last ten percent that’s going to be the true challenge.

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