8/1/2006 | 7 MINUTE READ

An Inconvenient Truth: GM Cares About the Environment

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Although some people might think that GM is about plundering and polluting the planet, the corporation has long been committed to owning up to its corporate responsibility—which includes working toward sustainability mobility.


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Despite the fact that there are those like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who seems convinced that General Motors isn’t a very good corporate citizen, that it is an organization that cares solely about its own benefit, that’s not the case. The company has, for a number of years, been concerned with the health and well being of not only its own existence, but that of the planet. When asked about how GM defines “sustainable development,” Terry Cullum, GM director of Corporate Responsibility & Environment and Energy, responds, “We pretty much go with the Brundtland Commission’s answer. It is a very simple definition in terms of looking at the economic, social and environmental aspects, making sure that we consider those three elements as we make business decisions.”

The Brundtland Commission? Well, it turns out that in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which was established by the United Nations in 1983, released a report titled “Our Common Future.” This report states “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The chairwoman of the commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland, had her name attached to that report and to the commission.

SUSTAINABLE & SAFE. Then there is the Sustainable Mobility project conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). “We were one of the companies that helped conceive the idea and get it off the ground,” Cullum says. The WBCSD released a report that provided a state-of-the-industry look at global personal transportation in 2001, in which there are a number of “grand challenges” enumerated, that take into account factors including capacity, performance, emissions, fuel use, and materials. This was followed by another report in 2004 that took the year 2030 as a point in the future, then tried to anticipate just what the problems vis-à-vis personal mobility would be then. This revealed that one big problem is safety—the World Health Organization projects that by 2020 as many as two million people per year losing their lives due to motor vehicle-related accidents, so GM and six other WBCSD Sustainable Mobility member companies have established the “Global Road Safety Initiative” to find the ways and means to address this problem.

What becomes clear is that “sustainable product development” is not just about doing things that are environmentally oriented, although that is a part of it. “If you look at the environmental area,” Cullum says, “we’ve made a number of positive strides. We set aggressive goals for our facilities for energy, water and waste reduction and we have very impressive performance in those areas over the last decade. We set public targets for energy reduction, waste reduction and water reduction and we’ve been able to drive to those goals and exceed those goals. We’ve been doing it in five-year increments, where we set the goal and then we drive the behaviors to achieving the goals. These are integrated into our business plans, they’re part of what we call our ‘Manufacturing Scorecard.’ Again, what gets measured gets moved. We’ve made impressive gains.” For example, according to the GM 2005 Corporate Responsibility Report, the corporation has reduced global greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% since 2000, which is not only better than the 8% that had been the goal, but achieved one year earlier. The goal for water usage reduction was 10%; they reduced water use by 23.3%.

“From a product standpoint, if you look at the life cycle of the vehicle, we’ve begun looking at the complete life cycle, not just during the manufacturing phase, but we’ve taken a look at applying life cycle thinking into the design, manufacture, use and end of life of our vehicles. We were the first auto manufacturer to make dismantling manuals available on a website.”

THE FUTURE MATTERS. One might imagine, however, that in a business environment where GM (like other manufacturers) is struggling for its very existence now, not at some distant time in the future, it might be that sustainability is something that would get not even a polite nod. But Cullum says that GM is not retreating from its commitment. He cites, for example, the on-going work and investment in the development of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. “We’ve continued to focus, even in tough economic times, continuing to fund our development at the rate we think we need to bring production vehicles to the marketplace.” More to the point, he says that the economic pressures are causing them to “think we need to get there sooner rather than later.”

Cullum points out that when people are promoted to the executive level within GM they undergo a week-long training session that provides a look into the various organizations within the corporation. One module is devoted to sustainability. “We have found—surprisingly—that almost all of them [the new executives] have worked with it for a while. We feel pretty successful in terms of getting the word out and getting people to think that way as they conduct their normal business.”

He puts it in a simple context: “The concept of sustainability means you’re moving forward in a way that will make sure you’re around tomorrow.”



By Christopher A. Sawyer, Executive Editor

“Manufacturing has tracked energy for a very, very long time,” says Susan Brennan, director, Sustainable Manufacturing at Ford, “and we have some very strong processes around this metric.” Sustainability, however, goes far beyond tracking and reducing energy usage: “There are financial, environmental, and societal aspects to the process, and we evaluate where we stand against the metrics that are set at the start of the fiscal year.” These reviews take place monthly, quarterly, and annually within Ford’s Environmental Council, a group that includes Manufacturing, Engineering, and the Environmental Quality office.

While this process sounds rather robust, it’s still relatively new, and getting people on board isn’t always easy. “In our 2002 Corporate Citizenship Report, [Ford chairman] Bill Ford talked about the importance of water conservation. However, water isn’t an expensive commodity in the U.S., so getting it into the plan took a lot of energy,” says Brennan without a hint of irony. By applying the well-worn metrics used to measure energy and water use, the Environmental Council was able to create a scorecard that would help Manufacturing—at both the plant and corporate level—determine how to evaluate existing processes, machinery, and new purchases in terms of water savings. “Once the price of water began to go up,” says Brennan, “the support for this metric increased, but you can’t let that be your deciding factor. Sometimes you have to push these things because they are the right thing to do.”

If this is beginning to sound a bit like the mantra of Lean Manufacturing, that’s because there are similarities. Like lean, Brennan admits that driving sustainability into the system happens on the shop floor, not in the conference room. “There are a lot of synergies between sustainability and lean,” she says. “You use the same type of processes that you’d use to improve the efficiency of a manufacturing process or plant. It’s just a different metric that people need to be aware of and add to their toolbox.”

An example of this synergy is the Fumes to Fuel process Ford first instituted at its Rouge Center in Dearborn, MI, to turn the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off in the painting process into a fuel that is used to generate power at the plant. Prior to this program, the VOCs were captured and incinerated, while solids like paint overspray were treated, made non-hazardous, and buried in industrial landfills. Brennan says, “That whole program began as a way to save the energy spent incinerating those paint fumes, but expanded to eliminate the solid waste.” The program went from test to a full-scale pilot program at Ford’s Michigan Truck Plant in Wayne, MI, and will be rolled out to other assembly plants as their equipment is updated or replaced.

One danger in all this, however, is that it is easy to bureaucratize the process to the point where the targets overshadow the goals. That is, you focus on recycling to reach an overall target, for example, and this prevents you from eliminating the waste in the system that is currently being recycled. According to Brennan, “All of the plants are very good at challenging their suppliers to reduce and eliminate waste in their parts and processes, but we have to leave enough room in the process and in our expectations to allow our people to innovate. The real challenge comes in replicating our success stories, recognizing best practices, and continuing to move forward toward our ultimate objective.”