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Corporations are Going Green--Slowly but Surely

2/4/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: sustainable businesses, renewable energy, Walmart, General Motors, Kraft, green transportation, BPA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A dramatic shift is occurring in business. Companies are thinking bigger and longer term about sustainability—a sea change from their otherwise notoriously incremental, short-term mindset.”

This is Joel Makower and the editors of’s take on The State of Green Business 2011, a report released this week. The editors combed nearly 2,200 news reports, blog posts, opinion pieces and podcasts published on last year and unearthed 10 trends for the year ahead. While many of these initiatives seem agonizingly slow to the un-corporate-minded (do we really have to wait until 2015?), Makower assures us that we’re about to see exponential progress as major corporations start to understand that green practices save money.

 1. Consumer giants awaken to green. The world’s biggest brands—Kraft, Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson and Unilever—announced major green efforts in 2010. Walmart’s Sustainability Consortium, an independently run research group tracking waste reduction, renewable energy use and affordable green products, now has more than 70 major corporate members.

 2. Companies aim for zero. General Motors announced that more than half of its 146 global manufacturing plants had achieved zero waste; Procter & Gamble announced its first zero-waste manufacturing plant in North America; and Kraft announced that nine facilities have become zero-waste. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, Kraft is sending 5 million pounds of mustard seed hulls left over from making Grey Poupon for use as animal feed. A Tang factory in China sends sugar that doesn’t fit its recipe to another Kraft plant in China that makes cough drops. These companies are learning that cutting waste yields multiple savings, Makower writes, but the loose definition of “zero waste” is a hurdle.

 3. The developing world yanks the supply chain. Companies are paying attention to “conflict minerals,” mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, after the U.S. Congress signed into law a provision aimed at curbing the use of gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum from conflict-ridden countries such as Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjacent countries. Palm oil—a low-cost oil used to fry refined foods—is also coming under scrutiny because its harvest can cause irreversible environmental damage. Last year Nestle and Unilever worked with environmental groups to better define and certify sustainably harvested palm oil. General Mills and Walmart committed to using 100 percent sustainably sourced palm oil by late 2015.   

4. Greener transport makes its move. Electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the market in 2010, and Hertz and Enterprise added EVs to their rental fleets—but there’s more to greener transport than cars. Ocean-going vessels (the means by which 2/3 of our goods arrive in the United States) announced they would slow down ships to save fuel and cut emissions, Alaska Airlines began testing new emissions-reducing technology and Amtrak debuted a biodiesel train that runs on beef byproducts.

5. Sustainable food becomes a main course. Walmart announced a series of five-year goals addressing the food supply chain, including selling $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farms, double its purchase of locally sourced products to 9 percent by 2015 and reduce food waste in the supply chain. Trader Joe’s gave in to a relentless Greenpeace campaign and announced it would sell only seafood from sustainable sources by the end of next year.

 6. Metrics and standards become the rule. Because most of the existing green standards and certifications are limited in scope, organizations such as Underwriters Laboratories and Green Seal are expanding their scopes. UL now issues a standard for cell phones that takes into account their entire lifecycle, and Green Seal launched GS-C1, a program that seeks to certify the sustainability of entire companies. Levi’s, Patagonia and Timberland banded together to launch the Eco Index to measure their products’ lifecycle impacts.

 7. Toxic concerns spur greener alternatives. As baby bottles, fast-food toys, mattresses, wallpaper and flooring and food packaging were revealed to contain toxics, endocrine disrupters and carcinogens, companies and regulators began to take a closer look. Many companies banned bisphenol A, or BPA, from their products and packaging, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment on a petition to ban triclosan, which has been linked to hormone-regulation changes in animals, for some uses.

 8. Water footprinting makes a splash. Companies are beginning to understand that global water issues such as droughts, floods, climate shifts and increasing consumption will likely affect their operations in coming years. Many are conducting water footprint analyses. Levi Strauss & Co. reduced the water consumed to make a pair of jeans by up to 96 percent, and Kimberly-Clark began giving away free SmartFlush bags, which can save a liter of water per flush.

 9. Companies learn to close the loop. Starbucks announced it’s made considerable progress toward turning used coffee cups into new cups, and five Walmart stores began testing a collection system for 28 types of trash (candy wrappers, yogurt tubs, pens, coffee bags) that TerraCycle can convert into tote bags, plant pots, backpacks and portable speakers. Hasbro is increasing the recycled content of its packaging and paper materials to 75 percent this year, and Pepsi-owned Naked Juice is converting all of its bottles to 100 percent post-consumer content.

 10. Bioplastics become material. Introductions of bioplastic materials made from plants and agricultural materials reached a crescendo during 2010. Coca-Cola subsidiary Odwalla is switching all its single-serve drinks to bottles made of plastic derived from molasses and sugar cane juice. NEC developed a bioplastic made from non-edible cashew nut shells, and Stonyfield Farm began using corn-based bioplastic. Ford is using foam derived from soy.


Levi Strauss & Co. has reduced the water used to make a pair of jeans by 96 percent. 

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