Taking it Back
Companies that take back their products to recycle their parts or dispose of them sustainably are nothing new. Some computer manufacturers have been doing it for years; Dell will take back anything with its name on it, through mail-in and an extensive drop-off program, and Best Buy takes back its own products and many others at its retail stores. But carpet? Shaw Industries, the largest carpet company in the world, has a comprehensive take-back and recycling program. Consumers can bring carpet to drop-off points and Shaw will recycle it, in some cases using the materials to make new carpet that’s Cradle to Cradle Silver certified. In 2010, the company reclaimed and recycled just over 111 million pounds of post-consumer carpet, and Shaw expects that figure to continue to rise.
Instead of waiting for their end users to smarten up, some firms do the hard work up front, turning their establishments into examples of conservation through design principles. “We’ve used basic building materials in the design and construction of our restaurants, but in unusual ways to create an environment that is more unique and interesting,” says Chris Arnold, a spokesperson for Chipotle. The company’s Gurnee, Ill. store includes a wind turbine, and is the first-ever restaurant to receive Platinum LEED certification. Chipotle’s other stores share similar features: drywall from 100% recycled material, low-E insulated glass and construction waste management techniques. PNC bank, too, has been a leader in green design, with over 100 branches that are LEED certified, and feature elements like countertops made from compressed sunflower seed hulls and floors from recycled rubber.
Open Book Labeling
“Truth in labeling” is a field that’s big and growing. Of course, not every company that provides a sustainability scorecard is going to be fully forthcoming. And determining a product’s environmental costs throughout its production maze is hugely tricky: how do you weigh a product’s use of recycled materials versus its emissions output? Walmart is the biggie in this field; in 2009, the mega-retailer announced a plan to put “eco-labels” on all of its products. But don’t expect to see them for another few years—together with 90 other organizations, the company formed a Sustainability Consortium to first study the range of inputs and outputs that need to be addressed and weighted. The website shown at right (ecolabelindex.com) allows you to compare and evaluate various systems of green labeling.
Adding post-consumer waste to a product is becoming increasingly common. Percentages of less than 10% are fairly negligible, but a number of companies have numbers in the high double digits. Trex decking uses recycled plastic and wood that would otherwise go into landfills. Its composite products contain 95% recycled content. Countertops are another place to look for serious conservation: Eco by Cosentino, Vetrazzo (shown below) and Glass Recycled all use post-consumer or post-industrial glass or porcelain in their surfaces, while PaperStone uses recycled paper. The recycled content in all of four companies is 75% or higher.
Life Cycle Thinking
In a very promising trend, some companies claim to be looking at the entire chain of custody of their materials. In 2010, Unilever, the British–Dutch multinational consumer goods behemoth, launched a Sustainable Living Plan that highlights its life-cycle assessment. By 2020, the company has pledged to halve the greenhouse gas impact of its products across the life cycle, from the sourcing of raw materials to consumer use and disposal, as well as the waste associated with products’ disposal, and to utilize agricultural raw materials that are 100% sustainably sourced (note the tea pickers at right). To help meet its ambitious goals, Unilever crowd-sourced ideas through an online collaboration platform, inviting more than 2,000 experts in the sustainability field to join in a wide-ranging discussion in April of this year.
Slow and Steady
Some companies are now forgoing big profits in the interest of gradual growth that will help solidify the market for green technologies. Leviton, for example, does solar installations paired with financing or leasing arrangements that allow homeowners to go solar without big initial investments. And slow, steady growth is also exemplified by
B Corporations, companies committed to practicing in socially and environmentally beneficial ways. Namasté Solar, (shown below) for example, employs a top-to-bottom approach that includes utilizing a hybrid fleet of vehicles, LEED-certified offices, and even organic cotton in company T-shirts. “We take environmental stewardship very seriously, and it is critically important to us that we continue to practice what we preach,” says Blake Jones, Namasté’s president and CEO. Another B Corporation is IceStone, a countertop maker whose products are all certified Cradle to Cradle gold level. The company, which is not yet profitable, also walks the talk by paying all of its employees a living wage.
Reducing Travel Impact
Transportation emissions leave such a huge carbon footprint that they’re a clear target. Many companies - most notably, tech firms such as Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems - have telecommuting and flextime policies that allow employees to cut down on commuting costs. Transportation companies - including FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service and UPS - are reducing their carbon dioxide output by adding electric, hybrid or alternative fuel-capable vehicles to their fleets. Shipping titan Maersk is purchasing new vessels that produce 50% less CO2 than the industry average (shown below). But the most intriguing shifts are the simple ones: Nike, for example, recently began differentiating between goods that need to travel by air and those that can travel by ship. Stonyfield Farm has improved its ordering process to ensure that its shipping containers are as full as possible.
Advocating for habitat and wildlife preservation, education and awareness might not immediately affect carbon emissions, but it’s a valid and vital conservation activity. Founded in 1995, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund supports wildlife study, habitat protection and education programs in critical ecosystems around the world; the initiative has awarded more than $18 million to projects in 111 countries. Forest product giant Weyerhaeuser (photo below) also aims to maintain habitats—or at least to preserve healthy forests. The firm maintains more than 700,000 acres for conservation, and its activities have been certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s Certified Sourcing Standard since 2010. The label ensures that forest productivity and biodiversity are maintained, protects soil and water, and sets rules for documenting products’ wood sources. Protecting animals directly counts, too. The German company Arnold Glas has developed Ornilux windows, which contain a faint patterned coating that birds can see, helping them to avoid destroying themselves by flying into clear glass.
It sounds impossible: recycling, converting or otherwise diverting end-products so that the waste stream trickles to nothing. But a few companies are doing it. DuPont’s building innovations division surprised observers, when it reduced its 81 million pounds of waste in 2008 to zero in 2012, through a combination of tracking, recycling and creatively rethinking end-uses (crushed Corian material is shown below). Procter & Gamble is aiming to do the same thing; the company’s Long-Term Environmental Sustainability Vision, announced in 2010, includes a goal of .5% manufacturing waste sent to landfills by 2020. So far, about 10% of the company’s plants and distribution centers have already achieved zero waste benchmarks. Even specialty companies are getting in on the action: furniture maker Herman Miller is aiming for no landfill waste, no hazardous waste and no VOC emissions by 2020.
Every manufacturer wants to sell more product, right? Not necessarily. There is a small minority of companies that achieve their sustainability goals by asking customers to buy less. Patagonia’s Common Threads Initiative, for example, asks consumers to take a pledge to reduce consumption. For its part, the company sells second-hand items through eBay and on its website, and offers a guide to taking care of Patagonia gear. Others find alternative ways to encourage consumers to change their lifestyles. Kohler (faucet shown below) runs a website, www.savewateramerica.com, which includes a range of conservation tips; the company also built a pilot house in celebration of Earth Day, demonstrating water-saving technology throughout a home, and has put out a PSA about water conservation. GE continually tests the market for green innovation, and runs a dense website, www.ecoimagination.com, that offers abundant energy-saving ideas for the future. Some are their own promotional initiatives. Others are more about getting the public on board with green lifestyle changes.
To view this article as it appeared in our July 2012 issue, please visit our Magazine Archive.