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Is Sustainability Scalable? A Visit to the IceStone Headquarters

Does a company really deliver on the promise of green if the things that reduce its carbon footprint also reduce its growth?

IceStoneAt this spring’s furniture fairs from Milan to Manhattan, nearly
everyone wanted to be vividly green. One of the truest green outfits in this sector is IceStone, which makes countertops
and tile from recycled glass and concrete. IceStone brings bonafides worthy of
a reality show: it employs dozens of Tibetan refugees in a repurposed Brooklyn factory that recycles its own water, and lines
up biodegradable cups at its holiday party. That’s a lot to admire, even before
you get to how one artistically skillful staffer hangs a painting of each employee of the month in the break room. But do the techniques that boost IceStone’s virtue also lower its
growth prospects? What looks brilliantly green can lose luster if it can’t get
to scale.

IceStone’s growth potential looks formidable on a tour of the company’s spacious
factory, where laborers once banged ship boilers into shape. You enter to open
shelves holding huge bags of ground-up glass, sorted by size and color. A “batch
plant” in the center of the floor pours glass, concrete, pigment and secret
ingredients into molds. Staff members (who arrive by subway or bike) cure it
in kilns (powered with off-grid electricity). Other workers then run it
through a polisher, inspect it, and prepare it for a truck pickup. This
process, on-site water recycling and all, has enabled IceStone to reach a staff
of 62 and divert millions of pounds of landfill waste since its first year in
2003.

But that’s also created a barrier to expansion, co-CEO Miranda Magagnini
told me on a December visit. Moving through the Brooklyn Navy Yard‘s cobblestone
streets might feel kicky to a visitor (the maze of buildings contains a Noah’s
ark of small manufacturers and tech shops), but it’s untenable for a guy
dragging a pallet. “We don’t make potato chips,” Magagnini said: a bump means a
break. So to produce more, Magnanini and co-CEO Peter Strugatz have to transfer
IceStone’s values beyond their watchful eye.

Doable, but fragile. And IceStone’s culture, which advances
the green ethic by investing in workers’ ingenuity, seems similarly fragile.

You see postings of Toyota’s
Lean Manufacturing principles in English, Spanish and Tibetan, as staff move
from entry-level “batching” to management. Floor supervisor Francis Filippi
says people brainstorm ways to save energy and cost because they see a higher
purpose. “We have people saying: we need to label it, wrap it, take pictures,
and inspect the trucks,” says Filippi, who came to IceStone from a bomb
manufacturer. “It is easier to train people in green skills here than in a
standard process with no deviation.”

But there’s a discernible endpoint to this collaboration. Magagnini
still delves into all hiring and design decisions, meaning the company’s
product line and lineup reflect her preferences. The founders acknowledge the need
to back off–IceStone just hired a COO whose writ includes documenting ideas
from all staff, and it’s testing small work groups that Magnanini says can
stoke entrepreneurship. Yet she says she needs the right “fit” for a tile color
or a receptionist. Which restates the dilemma. IceStone’s familial closeness constrains its ability to pursue a new, clean form of manufacturing. What happens
to the “fit” when it grows?

Magagnini, laudably, doesn’t pretend to know. “As the world turns, there are more
and more impostors out there,” Magagnini told me. IceStone has joined B Corp.,
a coalition promising fealty to social and sustainable “bottom lines.” (Other
members include a travel agency, a bookstore in Bellingham, Washington,
and a coffee shop.) This creates impetus to creatively value investments in,
say, water recycling. But the impostors’ wasteful habits are surging around the
Navy Yard walls. Which threatens the glow of IceStone’s example.

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