How Environmental Innovation Helps Businesses Succeed
By Kurt Repanshek
We are entering the age of environmental currency. Waste-stream reductions, workplace efficiencies and astute stewardship of lands directly or indirectly bump up the bottom line. Books and magazine articles by the score espouse and chronicle these economics of the environment, of clean air and water, sustainability and enhanced, not depleted, biodiversity. More and more companies strive to restore the environment that surrounds them as a matter of sound business.
Why shouldn’t business and industry be proactive in this arena? The drumbeat of climate change is deafening, with the presidential candidates pledging to reduce greenhouse gas production and Congress determined to cap greenhouse gas emissions, possibly by as much as 70% by 2050. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and, as such, might end up being regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency is also contributing to the need to reach some sort of legislative solution. Such efforts promise to make the cost of doing business more challenging and expensive, as energy prices most likely will spike well beyond current levels. Companies will have to be particularly nimble and innovative to cope in this new environmentally aware, and exigent, landscape.
But climate change isn’t the only driver of environmental consciousness in the corporate world. It’s merely the latest factor. So while any climate-change legislation surely will impact businesses, not all businesses are waiting to see what those impacts might be. Many, in fact, were concerned about the environment long before climate change became a hot topic. While the clean air and water acts that provided baselines for environmental stewardship were passed decades ago, today more than a few companies — driven by corporate stewardship, employee concerns and public expectations — are going beyond legal requirements to minimize their environmental impacts.
Many businesses are hard at work reducing their environmental impacts, in many cases
by rethinking their approach to doing business. Along the way, some are even challenging
their suppliers and customers to be as environmentally benign as possible.
Long before “carbon footprints” were being measured in metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, it was common sense that being more efficient saved time, energy and money and that a lighter hand on the land was welcome. Now the age of manufacturing efficiency has matured into the age of corporate conservation, as evidenced by the spread of, and clamor for, sustainable forestry; expanded research into wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable energies; and the implementation of recycling on a global scale.
Many businesses are hard at work reducing their environmental impacts, in many cases by rethinking their approach to doing business. They are adopting strategies to minimize waste through new technologies, switching to more sustainable manufacturing practices and searching for energy efficiencies as well as new energy sources. And along the way, some are even challenging their suppliers and their customers to be as environmentally benign as possible.
These days it only makes sense to be proactive when it comes to environmental considerations, rather than waiting until mandates are dispatched or resources vanish. An enlightened environmental consciousness is good for the bottom line, attracting and retaining the best employees, boosting productivity and strengthening the goodwill green business practices engender with customers. For more and more companies, it’s a way of life.
Xerox Finds Ways to Reduce Waste and Increase Productivity
Is there any more prolific and essential piece of office equipment than your printer? These wizards of productivity churn out memos, letters, reports, studies and drafts critical to your organization. But they also consume reams of paper, some of which is destined for the garbage can or a recycling center.
Imagine, though, that you could magically cut this waste stream in half as effortlessly as hitting the delete key on your computer or erasing the ink and routing these now-blank sheets back to the paper tray. It’s not possible today, but it might be tomorrow, thanks to strides Xerox Corp. is making with an experimental, self-erasing, reusable paper.
“What happens is you actually print out a document, and the image disappears in 24 hours so you can then reuse the paper,” says Patty Calkins, Xerox’s vice president of environment, health and safety. “What we’ve found is that almost 50% of the paper that comes off a print device ends up in the trash or recycle stream, so if we can reuse 50% of the papers that are printed, you can imagine that can significantly reduce the environmental impact from having to manufacture or even recycle paper.”
While erasable paper continues to move through research and development, it’s just one of the latest examples of how the document management company constantly strives to meet its commitment to a healthy environment. This commitment dates to the company’s founder, Joseph Wilson, who believed very strongly in corporate citizenship. That belief led to double-sided printing in 1969, recycled-content paper in the 1970s, and, in the 1980s, intelligent machines that would power down to save energy. Xerox furthered this pledge in the 1990s by designing waste-free products that not only benefit the company but also cost less.
“We not only look at how we reduce impact on our own operations and up our supply chain,
but we work very closely with our customers in trying to deliver technologies
and innovations and working with them to reduce their environmental impact.”
- Patty Calkins, Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety, Xerox Corp.
Xerox took a big step toward becoming waste-free 17 years ago when the company developed solid ink for its copiers. Much like blocks of colored crayons, the solid ink reduces office waste related to bulky toner cartridges by 90%, significantly trims Xerox’s own resource and energy use related to manufacturing toner cartridges, and cuts down on service calls (and their associated energy consumption) because the solid ink printers are more durable.
“We not only look at how we reduce impact on our own operations and up our supply chain, but we work very closely with our customers in trying to deliver technologies and innovations and working with them to reduce their environmental impact,” says Calkins. “And we also believe it’s important to partner with appropriate organizations. While we each can make a contribution on our own, partnerships can help us go even further.”
Xerox recently made a significant stride toward using fewer trees and reducing pollution and even energy consumption with its High Yield Business paper. This new paper technology utilizes 90% of the tree in making paper, versus traditional processes that consume only 45% of the tree. “To manufacture, it requires 18% less energy and produces 76% less air emissions and 35% less water emissions,” adds Calkins. “And because our supplier is powered by hydropower, there are also 69% less greenhouse gas emissions. The paper is actually lighter, too. It’s about 10% lighter, so if you put it into the mail there’s less impact on transportation. And it costs less.”
Innovations like these contribute to Xerox’s internal commitment to “Energy Challenge 2012,” a program through which the company is significantly cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by reducing its use of energy. The challenge’s initial goal was to reduce emissions by 10% over a 2002 baseline, but by the end of 2006 the company had seen an 18% reduction. Now the goal is to see a 25% drop over 2002 levels by 2012.
“The long history of commitment that Xerox has had to the environment is one of the fundamental aspects that we think is really important, particularly as the world becomes more and more concerned about environmental issues,” says Calkins. “There are a lot of businesses that are just coming to the table. We’ve made it an integral part of our business already, because we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Southern Company Believes Innovation Is Key to Addressing Climate Change
Innovation, says Tom Fanning, is key to addressing global climate change. While Fanning, chief operating officer of Southern Company, is keenly interested in how Congress crafts legislation to address carbon emissions, he’s more focused on his company’s efforts to more cleanly and efficiently leverage energy from various resources. Coal, renewables, nuclear energy and natural gas each will play a vital role in how we meet the energy demands of the 21st century, notes Fanning.
“When you think about serving the needs of a growing economy, it is clear to us that we’ve got to keep all of the nation’s potential sources of energy production in play. We can’t let the extremes of the policy debate prevent the various options that are available to us today from coming to bear in our future,” he says.
Southern Company, the Southeast’s largest producer of electricity with nearly 4.4 million customers, is located in one of the nation’s most vibrant regions, in terms of economy and population growth. As a result, the utility constantly searches for ways not only to produce more energy, but to do so in as environmentally friendly and cost-efficient a way as possible. For example, Southern Company is experimenting with burning a mixture of coal and biomass — in this case, small-diameter wood produced through thinning activities in the Talladega National Forest — in the hopes of tapping a potent, renewable fuel that has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than more traditional fuels.
“We’re really trying to work with a variety of people, including the Department of Energy, to develop technology solutions so that we can undertake legitimate activities to reduce carbon emissions,” says Fanning. “Absent technology to remove the carbon molecule, [legislative mandates] become just a tax, and that doesn’t really address the issue.”
At the same time, Southern Company, which has spent nearly $5 billion since 1990 to reduce emissions from its plants, has invested millions of dollars on researching coal gasification. The resulting technology is not only highly efficient — the most efficient in terms of a coal-fueled process — but also emits 25% less carbon dioxide than the utility’s average coal-fired plant. Research is also ongoing regarding how best to capture and store carbon generated through energy production and to boost Southern Company’s nuclear-generating capacity.
“When you think about serving the needs of a growing economy, it is clear to us that
we’ve got to keep all of the nation’s potential sources of energy production in play.
We can’t let the extremes of the policy debate prevent the various options
that are available to us today from coming to bear in our future.”
- Tom Fanning, Chief Operating Officer, Southern Company
Developing “energy consciousness” among consumers is another way Southern Company is working to extend current energy supplies. “We promote being good stewards of our consumption, using energy wisely without impairing economic growth or reducing our standard of living,” says Fanning. Energy efficiency and demand-side programs available from Southern Company’s subsidiaries have helped avoid the construction of about 3,000 megawatts of new generating capacity while saving customers money and slowing the growth of emissions.
Despite the varied nature of these energy sources and programs, one common thread runs through each: the need to be environmentally sensitive.
“We think we are just as good at being an environmental steward as we are in everything else we do,” says Fanning. “In pursuing that, we think there is an important concept. It’s one of balance, where we’ve got to make sure that, as we seek the right strategies and answers for the future challenges we’re all facing, we bring into balance the separate needs concerning the environment and the economy and providing a stable source of energy to meet the fabric of the nation’s economic future.”
As Xerox and Southern Company clearly illustrate, not only are businesses and industries working to minimize their environmental footprints, but the savings and value go far beyond simply reducing carbon load.