Imagine asking today how the Internet affects business. It’s an absurd question, like asking how electricity changed business. Asking the same about sustainability, it turns out, is equally absurd. Like the Internet, sustainability spurs innovation in everything, from how you see your business model to whether you see your employees (why not let them work at home more?). Here are our favorite ways companies today are greening up–and saving money and making better widgets in the process:-
- At $100 a ton, feeding a landfill is pricey. But in the past two years, General Mills has turned its solid waste into profits. Take its oat hulls, a Cheerios by-product. The company used to pay to have them hauled off, but realized they could be burned as fuel. Now customers compete to buy the stuff. In 2006, General Mills recycled 86% of its solid waste, earning more from that than it spent on disposal.
- Trains were already the cleanest way to move massive amounts of freight long distances, but General Electric raised the game with its Evolution locomotives, diesel engines launched in 2005 that cut fuel consumption by 5% and emissions by 40% compared to locomotives built just a year earlier. Up next, a triumph of sheer coolness: a GE hybrid diesel-electric locomotive that, just like your Prius, captures energy from braking and will improve mileage another 10%. According to GE, the energy dissipated in braking a 207-ton locomotive during the course of a year is enough to power 160 homes for the same period.
- First we counted calories, then carbs. Now it’s carbon, as retailers introduce product labels that encourage customers to weigh their eco-sins. The most ambitious: British grocery giant Tesco, which has a program to label all 70,000 of its products with carbon breakdowns.
- Taking the packaging revolution a step further, the liquid-laundry-detergent industry, goaded by Wal-Mart, has cut the size of its bottles by 50% or more by concentrating the liquid to two and sometimes three degrees of magnitude. Unilever’s triple-concentrated All Small & Mighty detergent has saved 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel, 10 million pounds of plastic resin, and 80 million square feet of cardboard since 2005. This fall, Procter & Gamble is converting its entire collection of liquids to double concentration.
- Timberland awards its employees who buy hybrids not only with a primo parking spot but also with $3,000 toward the car’s purchase. Bank of America has a similar program. Google is one-upping both with a $5,000 incentive.
- The corporate restroom isn’t fully green without Dyson’s new Airblade hand dryer, which does its job in half the time (12 seconds) and with half the energy (1,400 watts) of conventional dryers. It costs four times as much up front, but the energy savings can pay you back in three years. AMC Theatres is testing the units now.
- Unlike most big-box retailers that are debuting discrete green product lines, Staples has eco-modified a whopping 3,000 of its mainstream private-label products to include at least 30% post-consumer waste. From sticky notes to shipping boxes, nearly all of the new offerings do not have a nonrecycled alternative in the product line. The end goal: to pressure the entire industry to follow suit.
- Another kind of network is sprouting in an old lamp factory in Chicago as Baum Development unveils the Green Exchange, a 250,000-square-foot retail and office space reserved exclusively for green companies. Billed as the country’s first “green business community,” the development’s concept is that proximity will foster the exchange of ideas. Set to open in Fall 2008, the building is already 40% leased, with tenants including an electric-car dealer, energy consultants, and even a green pet-supply store.
- On the subject of hiring: Companies everywhere are suddenly clamoring to snag a vice president of sustainability. Or a director of environmental affairs. Someone whose job is to understand the environmental impact of the company and look for ways to turn it inside out. (Why aren’t you using your empty roof to generate solar power, anyway?) Ten years ago, the job essentially didn’t exist. But in the last two years, it has become common across a startling variety of industries. Starbucks has one. Ford too. Also Airbus, Albertson’s, Alcoa, Alaska Airlines, and Anheuser-Busch. Dow Chemical and DuPont have even given the position C-level heft–chief sustainability officer.
- At its Manhattan headquarters, JPMorgan Chase is starting renovations at the top–on the roof, 53 stories up, where the bank is building what is essentially a giant pan to collect rainwater. The water will be funneled into a 55,000-gallon tank in the basement, filtered, and then piped up for toilet flushing. Coupled with new low-flush urinals and toilets, this system will cut the building’s water use–and cost–by 30%.
Of these we would like to add one: Ban styrofoam from fabrication altogether!