Corporate Garbage

June 26, 1998

By Michael Jessen

Corporations are poised to enter a new era of environmentalism based on the practice of sustainability.

That's the opinion of a growing number of chroniclers of the corporate scene, including Carl Frankel, Paul Hawken, and Joel Makower.

This should not surprise us. Anyone who gives the state of the world a little thought soon realizes that the more we keep fouling our air and water, the less able they are to sustain life. And it is our industrial processes and products that are doing most of the fouling.

Corporations around the world are realizing it is not enough to vastly improve their internal environmental performance. More and more they are comprehending that the pursuit of sustainability calls for a radical transformation of how corporations manage their resource inputs and outputs.

During a lunchtime talk at the Recycling Council of BC annual general meeting three weeks ago, author Mark Burch stated that one kilogram of waste eliminated at the consumer level saves the production of 67 kilograms of waste "upstream" in the processing and production levels.

Carl Frankel, author of the new book In Earth's Company: Business, Environment and the Challenge of Sustainability, says corporations need to make dramatic reductions in emissions, not just incremental ones.

"In the final analysis, the challenge boils down to this: rather than settle for reducing waste, companies need to come as close as possible to eliminating it completely," Frankel says. "This reality calls for wholesale changes at both the individual corporate and broader industrial levels. This is not all that is required -- companies need to address sustainability challenges that exist outside their doors as well -- but, as a core strategy, the aggressive pursuit of resource productivity is essential."

Some major corporations that have committed to reaching zero emissions include Du Pont in the U.S. and EBARA, Chichibu Onoda Cement and Ogihara in Japan, where that country's environmental agency concluded in a white paper sanctioned by the powerful Ministry of Trade and Industry that zero emissions was an appropriate standard for industry.

The concept has been boosted by the Zero Emissions Research Institute (ZERI), an initiative launched in 1995 by eco-entrepreneur Gunter Pauli under the umbrella of the Tokyo-based United Nations University. ZERI has set out to prove that zero-waste industrial ecology -- the clustering of businesses so that one company's waste becomes another company's input, resulting in the 100% capture and reuse of resources -- is scientifically and commercially feasible. Pauli believes zero emissions will have become the standard in 20 years.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, for instance, the Ann Arbor Brewing Company and an adjacent restaurant have developed plans in conjunction with ZERI to deploy a wide range of "loop-closing" and waste-elimination strategies, including using solid wastes to cultivate mushrooms for sale in the restaurant and using wastewater from the restaurant in the brewery.

Paul Hawken, whose new book Natural Capitalism should be out soon, believes companies can easily improve the efficiency of their resource use by a factor of ten. Joel Makower, editor of the Green Business Letter, has compiled case studies of companies integrating environmental management into their corporate culture.

Talk of sustainable production and consumption is moving beyond the talk level as more executives like Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface, commit their companies to follow sustainable practices. Talk also creates familiarity and a comfort level, which in turn will become, hopefully, a willingness to change.

As Carl Frankel says: "Farsighted executives understand that when the handwriting is one the wall, successful companies don't look the other way -- they read it."

All columns archived here are copyright © 1999 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at to arrange appropriate payment.