This article was first published in GBA’s Viride Magazine.
American manufacturing has been on the decline for decades. Like immigration and healthcare, the nation’s industrial state of affairs has become a recent point of contention, simultaneously an opportunity or a challenge to shape the future of the country’s economy. Pittsburgh has very publicly experienced both sides of this reality—polluted rivers, lead-laden soil, fair wages, and consistent community reinvestment.
Regardless, manufacturing still represents the United States’ largest economic output by a considerable margin, more than the six smallest sectors combined (including mining, construction, transportation, and hospitality). So perhaps the debate lies not in the acceptance or rejection of manufacturing as a whole, but rather in the character of industrial enterprises and their strategies for growth. In other words, what if manufacturing focused not on doing less harm, but on positively impacting people and the environment from the top to bottom of the supply chain? Pittsburgh just might answer this question in real time.
A SHIFT IN THE PARADIGM
Reimagining the relationship between industry and society requires a monumental perspective shift. Rather than calculating how businesses deplete resources, a regenerative approach asks how a system can renew and revitalize the communities that it serves. So what would this look like? Imagine a manufacturer of office chairs. The company starts by assessing the material composition and lifecycle impacts of their chairs’ production, transport, use, and disposal. This analysis reveals that the chair’s surface coating contains perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which are known to accumulate in the human body and contribute to toxic body burden. Additionally, the power tools used to assemble the chairs use a disproportionate amount of energy.
After months of research, testing, and implementation, the company rolls out a fundamentally different product. They have removed the PFCs and several other “red listed” chemicals from their chairs, ensuring that assembly workers, residents in their manufacturing communities, and future consumers won’t be exposed to toxins. The company then installed a 775.5 kilowatt photovoltaic system, generating more electricity than it needed for production, which allowed neighboring communities to power their homes with clean electricity. Facility managers also installed skylights over the production area to give workers more access to natural light and planted a pollinator garden to support the proliferation of essential pollinating species like bees and butterflies. The company also built a simple rainwater catchment system that feeds their production needs and turned “nuisance” stormwater into a valuable resource. They also filled the adjacent river with oysters to help filter and clean their water source.
“Being a net-positive manufacturer is not only about reducing harm, but about actively making a positive impact on our communities and the environment. ”
Far from representing a utopian manufacturer, this scenario describes the New York-based company Humanscale, which produces the above-mentioned Diffrient Smart Chair. Per founder and CEO Robert King, “being a net-positive manufacturer is not only about reducing harm, but about actively making a positive impact on our communities and the environment. Every time someone makes a purchase, they are not only getting highly functional, healthy products, they are also making a positive contribution to the environment.” Suddenly the dichotomy between environment and economy has a nuanced disruptor.
REGENERATIVE MANUFACTURING IN PITTSBURGH
Humanscale is just one of more than 50 companies rethinking their impact through the Living Product Challenge, a certification process that evaluates products based on their effect on human health and the environment. Now, Pittsburgh manufacturers are angling to be the center of this production revolution. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development funded a new initiative called the Pittsburgh Living Product Hub, which is tasked with educating manufacturers about regenerative design. The Hub is run by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) in collaboration with Green Building Alliance, and is working with manufacturers to imagine Living Products. Taking nature as inspiration, Living Products using only renewable energy in production, while enhancing functionality and beauty. From makers and startups to established manufacturers and industry giants, the Hub helps companies to optimize the material impact of their products from production to disposal, retooling existing products and inspiring the creation of new lines.
The Hub is focusing first on the building products sector, reflecting Pittsburgh’s longstanding leadership in metals, coatings, ductwork, glass, and insulation. This product concentration geographically corresponds with one of the nation’s strongest green building movements, which saw more than 35 million square feet of space pursuing LEED certification alone.1 Recently completed buildings such as the Tower at PNC Plaza and the Frick Environmental Center, for example, required extensive material vetting to lower the carbon, energy, and water footprints within their supply chains, while ensuring a healthy indoor environment for their occupants. Situated within 500 miles of half of the population of the United States, Pittsburgh-based manufacturers are ideally positioned to capitalize on this market shift by providing healthy and sustainably produced products.
Manufacturing still pumps Western Pennsylvania’s economic pulse, but the energy that flows through it is increasingly renewable, its materials an opportunity for regrowth and revitalization. With advancements in robotics and additive manufacturing, rivers could be lined with facilities that improve water quality, while communities benefit from skilled jobs that stay local. There is a tremendous opportunity to embrace Pittsburgh’s history of leadership in manufacturing with an equitable, regenerative ethos. With careful repositioning, a once-prominent industrial leader stands to yet again forge the foundations of the modern world.