We Could Be Zeros

June 19, 1998

By Michael Jessen

I've had a glimpse of the future of waste and it includes the word zero.

Sound impossible? Read on!

Two weeks ago, I attended the Recycling Council of BC's annual waste reduction conference and learned that many companies are reconceptualizing the way they do business. Speakers like Joel Makower and Rob Abbott stressed how environmental management is becoming a new driver of competitiveness.

Wait a minute you may be saying to yourself, businesses actually behaving responsibly? Impossible! Read on.

Makower is the author of The E-Factor: The Bottom Line Approach to Environmentally Responsible Business and editor of the Green Business Letter, a hands-on journal for environmentally conscious companies. His many case studies show how businesses can respond to environmental challenges in positive and profitable ways.

According to Makower, the new mantra for companies is "maximizing value out of what we use," in other words getting more value from less stuff.

He cited the example of Interface Inc., a privately-held $1 billion manufacturer of industrial carpeting tiles, which introduced its Evergreen Lease in 1995. Under this program, Interface maintains control of its carpeting, replacing individual tiles as they wear out. Customers are freed of maintenance obligations and get carpeting that consistently looks new while Interface maintains control of the product and its embedded raw materials, and the sustainability cause gets the benefits of the service orientation -- more jobs and drastically reduced consumption of raw materials.

Interface CEO Ray Anderson has launched his company on the road to sustainability and it is paying off handsomely say Makower and Abbott. Interface has been growing at a rate of 25% per year without an increase in resource throughput, says Makower.

Abbott, who is president of Abbott Strategies -- a firm that improves the competitive position of its clients through enhanced environmental, social and ethical performance -- says Interface has reduced waste by 32% since 1994 while saving itself $50 million US. "After three years of adopting sustainable practices, Ray Anderson has increased company profit by 20%," Abbott proclaims.

The real challenge for companies, Abbott believes, is to "climb upstream in the value chain" and reduce waste and maximize resource efficiency. "The world is changing," says Abbott, "and companies can be a player in this change. Those who don't will fall by the wayside."

Makower echoes that opinion. "Financial markets are starting to rate companies based on environmental management," he says. "Business has a better opportunity to be influential to a better environment and greener products than do consumers because of their interdependence and competitiveness."

Another example cited by Makower shows how Du Pont and Ford have changed their relationship over painting cars. Ford used to buy sprayers and paint from Du Pont, until it noticed that a lot of the paint was wasted and didn't end up on the car. Ford told Du Pont it would instead pay the company on a per car painted basis. This caused Du Pont to come to the Ford factory and constantly monitor its spray equipment to reduce waste and maximize paint utilization.

Companies that follow the principles of Total Quality Management strive for zero defects. Waste is a variation on this theme and more and more companies are beginning to recognize waste as a poison which needs to be designed out of the system. Abbott illustrates this point by saying Electrolux designed a washing machine that uses only 12 to 15 gallons of water compared to the normal 40 gallons. Knowing their competitors would soon catch up and match their machine's performance, Electrolux designers kept working and designed a machine that cleaned clothes using ultrasound and zero water!

Next week, I'll detail more about this exciting move to a zero waste society.

TRASH TIP: The average office worker throws away about 180 pounds of high-grade recyclable paper every year. Each ton of office paper recycled saves more than three cubic yards of landfill space and saves the use of 380 gallons of oil.

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