Go hard on sustainability

Oct. 7, 2008
Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker, CMRP, says it's time to get militant about sustainability.

As we go to press, Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin just debated to a draw and the House is giving the Wall Street bailout a second look. California is threatening to shut down if the U.S. Treasury doesn’t give it a $9 billion payday loan, the Dow has dived to around 10,000 and my wife’s car blew its head gasket.

What do these things have in common? They all might lead to at least a temporary reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, which rose 3% from 2006 to 2007, according to a recent report by the Global Carbon Project (www.globalcarbonproject.org). That increase is higher than the direst outlook for fossil fuel and related emissions projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007.

The increase to a total of 9.34 billion tons of carbon is attributed mostly to China (2 billion tons) and the United States (1.75 billion tons), followed by India and other developing nations. China's additional CO2 emissions accounted for more than half of the worldwide increase (China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide emitter in 2006).

Western manufacturers are rightly concerned about the price of reducing carbon emissions, along with the other costs of doing business in countries where they must comply with labor laws, pay for health care and meet strict regulatory requirements. What’s the point of having the lowest per-product-pound CO2 footprint if your costs are undercut and production goes someplace without regulations, raising the global greenhouse gas tally?

The answer is for us to get a little more militant about sustainability.

My favorite definition of sustainability also is among the shortest, and dates back to a 1987 U.N. conference: “To meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Robert Gillman interprets it as a special case of the Golden Rule: “Do unto future generations as you would have them do unto you.”

Most Plant Services readers are, by now, at least familiar with (and might be sick and tired of hearing about) how sustainability relates to energy and other natural resources, emissions and the environment. Many have thought about how the concept encourages positive community relations, safe working conditions and succession planning that includes recruiting and training a steady stream of maintenance and asset-management professionals.

Henry Ford embraced a form of sustainability when he made a point of paying his workers enough to be able to afford to buy the Model T’s they produced.

Plant Services’ Energy Expert Peter Garforth extends the concept of energy sustainability up the supply chain. In his May 2006 column, “Embedded Energy” (www.plantservices.com/articles/2006/131.html), he says that helping your suppliers be more energy efficient improves your energy security by reducing total demand, and mitigates risks of price increases and interrupted supplies.

I’m suggesting you extend that philosophy to cover a broad definition of sustainability, and everyone with whom you do business.

No less an entity than Wal-Mart has started to demand that suppliers meet certain sustainability criteria. So far, the requirements aren’t at all comprehensive, and have little potential to limit Wal-Mart’s supplier options or raise the company’s costs, but they’re a start.

Customers and consumers around the world are beginning to pay attention to claims of sustainable materials and manufacturing, and to prefer “green” products at least when other things appear to be equal.

Today, Wall Street is telling us that we might be entering a time of excess capacity, when some companies will focus on cost-cutting. They’ll turn a blind eye on unscrupulous practices, chisel suppliers, downsize workforces and defer investments in maintenance and infrastructure. But history tells us companies that use slow times as opportunities to sharpen worker skills, polish processes and raise their supplier expectations will emerge stronger and better prepared to meet rising demands for their superior products.

If you’re taking the time to read this, your company probably is among the latter. Demand sustainable practices from your suppliers in the broadest possible terms, wherever they might be. Deliver sustainable products to your customers. It’s better for everyone and cheaper in the long run — and it’s the Golden Rule.

E-mail Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker, CMRP, at [email protected].

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