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Keys to economic sustainability

Business, Features | August 1, 2009 | By:

Products, processes, people: environmental and economic sustainability are part of the same equation.

Open a door and you’ll find 10 more doors. That’s how Paul Bennotti views sustainability. The director of marketing responsible for leading sustainability initiatives at Quebec’s Victor Group sees a “tremendous evolution” in how companies such as Victor strive not only to achieve profitability, but also to ensure the planet’s future. “The path doesn’t end,” he says. “It is inclusive of products, inclusive of processes, and inclusive of our people.”

A third-generation family business founded in 1945, the textile company gathered wool scraps and recycled it into blankets for World War II soldiers. More than half a century later, any company that wants to survive in today’s global-warming and economy-chilling climate must look hard at its mission statement. If your company’s stated goals don’t include sustainability, then so long, and see you in another line of work. Maybe.

Since 2002, the Victor Group has reduced greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent, water consumption 74 percent and chemicals 50 percent, and is recycling 99.9 percent of its textile, plastic and paper waste.

For another model of long-term sustainability, look at DuPont. The multifaceted Wilmington, Del.-based company’s first patent in 1804 (signed by Thomas Jefferson) was for a machine to granulate gunpowder. In 2006, DuPont was awarded U.S. Patent 7,000,000 for a bio-based synthetic fiber derived from renewable resources. That same year, chairman and CEO Chad Holliday, in a speech about sustainable growth, said this: “We have transformed our company several times in our history, constantly challenging ourselves with this question: Are we doing the right things to build a stronger company, help solve the world’s toughest challenges and build a brighter future for people and our planet?”

There’s more than one kind of sustainability. Economy and ecology are becoming two critical halves of the whole.

Building a firm foundation

The most successful, innovative companies view sustainability as a multilayered issue that works best as a collaboration between corporate executives, employees, suppliers, clients, consultants and even competitors.

“Educate everybody on sustainability, because we understand that it’s not companies that become sustainable, but systems that become sustainable,” says Amy Robertson, director of marketing and sustainability for True Textiles, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based manufacturer of commercial interiors. “It has to become the culture of your organization. It’s not a department. It’s not a marketing program. Engage your associates and look to them to move you forward in your journey.”

To guide its sustainability efforts, Victor formed an Environmental Task Group in 2000—composed of employees in operations, R&D and marketing. Company management also hired the environmental consulting firm MBDC of Charlottesville, Va., which created the Cradle to Cradle Design Protocol and its attendant third-party certification.

“Companies come to us to try to understand what our interpretation of sustainability is,” says James Ewell, MBDC’s director of consulting. With Victor, he says, “In addition to working with all the dye chemicals and auxiliaries used for coloring their fabrics, we alerted them to the fact that there was an opportunity to improve their polyester fabric by using an alternative catalyst.”

As a result, in 2001, Victor introduced its antimony-free Eco Intelligence® brand.

“This has become a very successful platform for Victor,” Bennotti says. “At this point, we are introducing a lot of other products we are going to add under that umbrella: recycled polyester, post-consumer and post-industrial [fabric] and a version that is a combination of the two.”

Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable business development for DuPont, describes the process of developing a corporate culture around the company’s mission. “We have linked sustainability to our core values: safety and health, environmental stewardship, highest ethical behavior and respect for people … We set public goals and then track and report on our progress. This allows our employees to see the specific actions that demonstrate progress. Ultimately, our objective is to have employees see how their work and the day-to-day decisions that they make link to our overall mission of sustainable growth.” DuPont also rewards employee contributions. “Recognition by senior leadership of activities that help reduce the company’s footprint are critical to making progress,” Rittenhouse says.

Victor sends e-mail updates to employees, as well as customers, to communicate its work on the sustainability front; schedules training sessions for any new sustainable products or initiatives; sends representatives to environmental trade shows and conferences; and brainstorms with employees for new concepts. Because they are involved in every aspect of the business, staff may offer suggestions that someone at the executive level may not come up with.

True Textiles has saved money thanks to ideas generated by its employees. “We ‘chip’ our cardboard yard cones [and burn them] versus throwing them out,” Robertson says by way of example. “Not only do we not contribute to landfill waste, but we also are able to capture some steam heat from the process.” Another employee suggestion on ways to reschedule trucks resulted in a savings of $2,400 a month.

At Portland Color, a digital printing company in Portland, Maine, an employee offered to sew scraps of polyester for job delivery packages (instead of using cardboard).

Wasting away

Because it works with a lot of fabric samples, Victor’s design studio in SoHo generates considerable waste. But the company isn’t letting that waste go to … waste. Instead, it gives fabric scraps to a performance artist to make costumes for stilt walkers. The studio also works with local schools (including a school for the deaf that makes arts and crafts from scrap fabric) and churches that have programs for the elderly.

For the past seven years, True Textiles has been developing its ReSKU program to reclaim fabrics and turn them into raw materials for new products. But it goes a step further than recycling by “upcycling” to create products with greater value. Rather than staring at a pile of waste and wondering what to do with it, the company first identifies high-value product opportunities for waste. That process, the company believes, “greatly increases the incentive to do so.” The strategy has resulted, for example, in creating cushions that replace polyurethane foam.

Similarly, the triad of Sustainable Solutions North America, Strateline Industries and Circle LLC talks about its 361° sustainable business strategy. “We take what was a waste, low-end product and make it into an even more valuable product,” explains Cynthia Mabrey, corporate communications manager. Sustainable Solutions in Wagoner, Okla., regenerates cotton clippings from apparel production. Strateline Industries of Rogers, Ark., takes the medium cotton fibers and uses them as a substrate for disposable wipes.

“It’s too expensive to put virgin cotton in something you are going to throw away,” Mabrey says. “By utilizing a ‘smart stream’ in a disposable wipe, it makes the cost very competitive. Wipes with cotton offer the consumer a much higher-end product that is soft, absorbent and strong.”

Sustainable Solutions also regenerates leather. “Nike asked us to take leather shoe waste,” Mabrey says. “It took us about a year to come up with a way to engineer that leather waste back into a fiber. It just makes sense to use what’s already there for the creation of new products—for the original company’s benefit as well as for the benefit of other markets.”

Reaching out

Circle not only works with Sustainable Solutions and Strateline, but also manages the Sustainable Supply Network, which connects companies worldwide to create an eco-supply chain and then tracks the programs. The network qualifies and trains members and annually publishes a report on the levels of sustainability that they have reached. Circle also reaches out to nonmember/non-network sources.

“We have a team that recently came back from Sri Lanka and India and other countries where there are a large number of cutters,” Mabrey says. “We’re helping them learn how to gather and sort waste.”

Victor is introducing an Eco Intelligence Council that will encompass people outside of the company, including customers and suppliers.

According to Ewell, MBDC encourages people to ask questions of the new materials economy. “The material world is finite as well, not just petroleum for energy,” he says. “We need to figure out a way to design materials and products so that they can be continuously reused. There’s a lot of detail that sits behind how you do that, but in terms of a directive of ecology, for me the economics just flow from that. We have to redesign how we look at profit, and it has to be based on longer-term horizons than [fiscal] quarters.

“More consumers are becoming sensitized to these issues,” Ewell continues. “If they are looking at your product side by side and [your competitor] has a story about what they are doing to protect the environment, research shows that, all things being equal, they want to feel good about their purchase. You will lose business if you don’t have some way to explain how you are producing your product [sustainably].”

Winning points

Portland Color wanted to do just that and acquired third-party certification from Sustainable Green Printing (SGP) Partnership. “More and more customers were asking how sustainable we were,” says David Siegel, director of technology and sustainability. “They are looking at the supply chain. We have a way of saying, ‘You have asked what we are doing. We have answers to all those questions.’”

Going through a third-party certification process takes time and money, but helps a company communicate its sustainability commitment to those outside and within the company. “[SGP certification] has raised consciousness [among employees] in terms of thinking more efficiently of how they are doing things,” Siegel says. “Our employees were very concerned about seeing mounted boards or scraps of vinyl going into the dumpster. They have become a very active part of [sustainability] in terms of how we do business.”

Beth McInnis, product marketing manager for Victor, notes that through the company’s sustainability efforts, it has enjoyed “a significant cost savings with respect to energy, water and waste reduction. Also, there has been an increased demand. People are looking for sustainable products and LEED points.”

In 2004, Victor achieved ISO 14000 certification from the International Organization for Standardization. “It’s a really good environmental management system,” Bennotti says. “We had already been measuring and managing our eco-metrics, but it helps in fine-tuning the framework for measuring and conserving inputs and resources. It’s well recognized, and it’s a nice assurance for our customers.”

For companies just opening the door to sustainability, Bennotti suggests they start by talking to those on the other side of that door. “People are very willing to share,” he says. “They want to help other companies become more environmentally sound.”

“If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem,” Ewell concludes. “Your costs will be higher. You will lose business or market share to businesses who do what you do and are able to address [sustainability] issues. There’s the cost of liability [i.e. toxic chemicals, high energy usage, waste generation] plus losing business—and your share of whatever the consequences are of polluting the environment.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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