Tech Helps Fuel Green Businesses (Part 2 of 2)
(Part 1 of 2)
It starts at the top
Sustainability in business is different from corporate social-responsibility programs, which monitor the social and environmental impact of corporations, because sustainability can touch so many parts of a company, said Roger Ballentine, president of Green Strategies. But my impression is that this doesn't happen unless somebody high up in the organization makes a very visible commitment.
Bill Ford was considered a renegade when he began pushing Ford Motor to build fuel-efficient vehicles 10 years ago, including hybrids. He was also personally involved in the development of the Rouge River plant in Michigan, which took a number of steps to reduce its environmental impact. Those moves then, which may have seemed risky, have helped the company's position now, say employees.
"We wouldn't have the hybrid Escape if it weren't for Bill Ford. I was at Chrysler at the time and wondered, 'What are they doing?'" said Susan Cischke, group vice president for sustainability, environment, and safety engineering at Ford. Since then, the momentum has picked up and spread to different areas. "It used to be that sustainability was a side thing and you put out a report once a year. Now it's integrated into the core of the company," said Cischke.
IT is key ingredient to eco-products and services
Car-sharing service Zipcar wouldn't be in business if it weren't for the Web and RFID technology. People reserve cars over the Web, using a PC or wireless device, and then access the cars with a card.
Arguably, it's a green business because it lets people in cities use cars occasionally, which eases congestion and promotes use of public transportation. The company estimates that each car it rents equates to 20 cars being taken off the road and a reduction of vehicle miles overall, said Zipcar CEO Scott Griffith.
Tech tools also help consumers manage their personal environment footprint, such as software to manage electric-car charging or to improve home energy efficiency with energy monitors. Another example: Ford on Friday released an application for its in-car software to help consumers find the most energy-efficient driving route.
Perhaps the bigger impact comes from using tech and the Web to inform consumers. The Sustainability Consortium, originally formed by Wal-Mart in 2008, is a group of companies and academics that are trying to create labels to convey the environmental attributes of goods, much the way nutritional labels work for food. It's incredibly complex, given that most of a product's environmental footprint stems from the supply chain of partners so this sort of system is unlikely to happen fast or be perfect.
"We are hoping to develop a tool to allow consumers to make better decisions and be better informed so they're making purchase decisions based on more than just price. That's the vision," said Matt Kistler, senior vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart stores.
Information is a key part of recycling goods at the end of life, too. Furniture maker Herman Miller is a pioneer in designing products so that they can be recycled and made into new products. But until consumers know that old goods can be recycled, all green-oriented businesses will struggle to scale up their efforts, said Michael Volkeman, the company's former CEO.
For all the positive reinforcement around the prospects for green business, there wasn't a whole lot of optimism regarding policies to adequately address climate change in the U.S. That why businesses and consumers have a big role in shaping the future, said Yvon Chouinard, an icon in the world of business and sustainability. "The new generation, they vote with their dollars," he said. "If companies don't get this, they will be left behind."