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EnvironDesign Notebook: A Simple Twist of Fate

By Keri Luly, LEED AP


By Keri Luly, LEED AP

In a work-related capacity, how many years have you been involved in improving the environment?
Luly: Basically, my entire career. I spent 16 years at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and then almost seven years running my own consulting practice in environmental excellence, and now a few months at Allsteel. When I was in government at Illinois EPA, the first half, I worked with communities as a liaison between the technical people in government and the communities who didn't understand the environmental situations we were dealing with. The second half was in the Office of Pollution Prevention. This was a voluntary program, with the idea being that manufacturers, government and citizens, needed to work together better and find innovative ways that were not just good for the environment, but good for business too, so that way, everybody wins.

What drew you to a career that focuses so heavily on the environment?
Luly: I'm doing work that I believe in and for me that's always been a good deal. I've always been drawn to the environment and nature, and figured I might as well try to work with what I'm passionate about, so every step of my career has been that way and I'm pretty lucky in that regard.

What made you decide to bring your sustainability expertise to the furniture manufacturing industry?
Luly: It was sort of a little twist of fate. I had been running my consulting business for almost seven years and even though the work was very exciting, I would never really know what happened later. There was always the feeling of, 'I wonder what happened to those people' and 'did the project work, and what are they doing with it now?'" I really wanted to be back in an organization where I could see the changes, help people understand what was needed and move forward and see the results, and then build on that.

What is your initial impression of the furnishings industry in terms of the direction it is headed in, sustainability-wise?
Luly: It's really exciting and that's a part of my decision to come to this industry. It's partially being driven by LEED, which is pushing buildings, and now building interiors, to be more green. But I think the thing that's most exciting is the fact that this is not government regulation pushing this movement toward sustainability. This is something that is finally being recognized—that the environment and business are not opposites—that being good for the environment is good for business. My whole career, I've hoped for the day when businesses would really understand that. My title is stewardship coordinator, not environmental manager. I wanted 'coordinator' because I want to work with people, and 'stewardship' because I want everybody to be an environmental steward. I want everyone to take this to heart.

Are there any industry practices or procedures currently in place that have surprised you, in terms of being environmentally pro-active?
Luly: The questionnaires that come in, because, designers probably never studied chemistry or biology or environment while they were going through school. And now all the sudden they are being pressured to make decisions on what products have better environmental impact and things like that. It has to be a difficult position to be in but it feels like theirs hearts are in the right place. There are lots of these questionnaires being circulated (mostly by design firms) and I get the feeling that a lot of the people who are circulating them don't understand the questions themselves because they'll have some complex question and then you're supposed to answer [only] 'yes' or 'no'. There are lots of different issues to weigh when you're thinking about environmental choices.

What areas do you feel offer the greatest opportunity for improvement toward these types of environmental policies?
Luly: I think education is big part of it. But a part of it too is I want people to start better understanding some of the terminology that's being tossed around too casually, like the word sustainability. True sustainability means, every resource we use, we somehow pull back into the system for re-use. We have to change our way of thinking and we can't just keep labeling every little thing sustainable. We have to really be true to the definition and say 'is it really sustainable' and if not, what is it going to take over the next few years to get there?

What do you believe are some of the more common misconceptions when it comes to environmentally-friendly designs and products?
Luly: Part of it is the sustainability issue—understanding the true definition. Another one that comes to mind, with office furniture in particular, is I don't think people realize just how many components there are to office furniture and how complex it is to look at all of those with an environmental perspective. You look at a modern office and there's so many different materials being used. There are so many things that have to be considered in product design, so many different materials and processes that it's complex. It's a path: You have to set goals and move toward them.

Are there any specific categories or product offerings, in the furniture manufacturing industry in particular (e.g. seating), that you feel might be more difficult for manufacturers to become more environmentally friendly?
Luly: I don't think so. It seems like everything I've encountered has a number of components involved and different options and decisions you have to weigh if you're going to change one of the materials. It's also more complicated now. If you've got [multiple] suppliers that are overseas or even in the U.S., the more separate components you have being made by different people, the harder it is to make sure they're having good environmental policies too. But I don't think there's really one type of furniture that's more difficult than another, to change. I think all of it is a process. You have to set a lofty goal and then figure out how you're going to get there.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the industry in terms of developing and retaining a viable sustainability policy?
Luly: It has to become a mindset. It can't be just on a 'to do' list. It's got to really become integrated into the whole company. And of course you have to have top management saying that it is important. Then you have to empower the employees to do it. You have to educate them as well: education and empowerment are vital.

If there was one environmental initiative or policy that you could get industry-wide acceptance and participation in, right now, what would it be?
Luly: Oh, I could write you a whole list (laughing). There is an overarching policy called 'Agenda 21' that came out of the 1992 Earth Summit and it basically is a game plan for the whole planet to truly reach sustainability. This is an approach that says everybody has to be involved in figuring out how to develop and live well, but not screw up the planet and not use up all of our resources in the meantime. There are also some interesting techniques that I would love to see practiced more, one is called 'The Natural Step' [TNS]. It basically says there are finite resources and that you can't create anything new that isn't already a part of energy or matter, and there is no 'away'—you can't [truly] throw something away—it's still with us. You may put it in a landfill, well that just takes it out of use, but it's not really away.

Do you think the industry needs a unified green product standard?

Luly: I think that's going to be necessary. There's so much 'greenwashing' going on and that's not just in this industry, that's in all industries. I think in order to compare apples to apples, we're going to have to have a really good third party certification 'system' worked out. That way, if somebody is looking at making a purchase, they can really compare. There are third party organizations our there now who are doing this sort of thing. There's actually one like SCS (Scientific Certification Systems) doing this in the office furniture industry already and their focus is primarily more for our use on error emissions testing. Maybe an organization like that would take on this kind of a challenge.

How important are third-party product certifications? Can designers rely on manufacturers' claims or is certification the way of the future?
Luly: I think it's going to have to be [through] certification so that they can easily compare. No matter how many of these questionnaires are sent out—once they get the answers, you can argue yes or no for the same product, so that doesn't really tell them anything. So they may have binders full of questionnaires and answers but they're still not really going to know how to make decisions based on that [information], because those questionnaires are not certified by anybody. So they're still in the same situation they started out in—of not having the right answers or not having answers they can be sure they can trust, so I think certification is going to have to get them there.

Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Multi-State Working Group on Environmental Performance. MSWG is a network of government regulators, businesses, environmentalists, and academia that partners to improve environmental performance, economic sustainability, social responsibility and quality of life—and integrate those improvements into our nation's culture. MSWG's Policy Academy uses education, dialogue and research to develop effective new public policy tools to protect and restore the environment. Go to for more information.

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at