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Business and Sustainability


Some Good News on the Corporate Front

By Joe Kresse
(Originally appeared in Timeline #73 January/February 2004)

With all the news about corporate corruption-accounting scandals, outright theft by senior officers, political contributions made to get relaxation of environmental and other restrictions-one might wonder whether there's any good news on the business front.

Thirty participants in a recent Silicon Valley Sustainability Tour found that there is indeed some good news. Sponsored by the Foundation for Global Community, the two-day tour visited a number of different locations. Companies visited included Hewlett-Packard, Roche, Hitachi, and IDEO (probably the largest industrial design firm in the world). At each stop, officials from the host organization showed us how they create business value through sustainability.

At IDEO, designers have developed information about the energy required (and the CO2 emitted) to produce various materials they use in designing products. They also determine what is involved when materials are recycled and reused. Such information allows them to implement more and more of the Natural Step principles (Timeline, March 1995) in their designs. Several members of the Foundation had visited IDEO two years ago, and the progress they have made in integrating sustainability into their efforts is impressive.

Hewlett-Packard has an in-house sustainability network with 550 members, and publishes a sustainability newsletter that reaches 1,500 employees. Each product line has a steward whose job is to minimize that product's ecological footprint by reducing packaging, increasing recycled content and ease of recycling, and reducing toxic materials in the product. When even such a simple thing as the plastic emblem attached to HP printers was redesigned, the steward made sure that it could be recycled. A team is currently working on a "compostable" printer, where the plastic is made from corn and is biodegradable.

Hewlett-Packard's sustainability efforts are reported on the website On it, HP reports that it now recycles 3 million pounds of old computers a month, including those made by other companies. Its global corporate citizenship initiative also helps bring communities in the developing world into the electronic age in ways that are appropriate to the particular culture.

Roche Palo Alto has its offices in a building 30 years old, constructed in an era of cheap energy. A Swiss company, Roche carries the consciousness of environmental limits that is more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S. so there is significant management support for reducing energy use. But even given all this, what the facilities people have achieved is astounding. With the same level of operations, their electrical and gas usage has dropped by about 50 percent over the last ten years. Now, since half their water use is for irrigation, they are looking at native and drought-tolerant plantings to further reduce the amount of water they use. Hearing the Roche people talk was inspiring. They referred to their efforts as being all about the human spirit and about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit.

At Hitachi Global Storage Solutions, we were shown their "wildlife at work" program at their 300-acre site in San Jose. On the site are a large plum orchard, a variety of bird species, and a lake frequented by ducks and geese, its water used for backup fire-suppression. The wildlife program consists of seven different efforts, each "owned" by an employee who is responsible for recruiting volunteers needed to make the effort a success. The employees we talked with said that this aspect of their jobs had reduced burnout and made their work much more enjoyable.

One recent activity this past fall was a plum harvest organized by Hitachi in which 100 volunteers picked the fruit for a local food bank. Just 50 trees provided 8,000 pounds of plums, which was all the food bank could handle. Next year the company will try to make arrangements with a food processor to dry some of the fruit so that all of the crop can be used. On our visit, we even had a chance to taste some "Hitachi plum jam."

What impressed all of us, and what we talked about most at our debriefing session at the tour's end, was the approach these people have taken. Rather than being over-whelmed by all the things that must be done to achieve a sustainable economy, they decided to do what they can, with what they have, where they are, expressing the innate desire that humans have to connect with the Earth and with each other.

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