Auto companies embrace sustainability

In a recent post I covered some of what my employer, Adobe Systems, is doing in the area of sustainability. I’m glad to note that we’re just one part of a larger trend in business. Many others are joining in as they see the effects of going green on their bottom line, and a recent MIT Sloan report finds that most businesses are anticipating “a world where sustainability is becoming a mainstream, if not required, part of the business strategy.”

John Viera at the SF Green Festival

Auto makers are no exception. At the recent San Francisco Green Festival, John Viera, Director of Sustainable Business Strategies at Ford, gave a behind-the-scenes look at what that company is doing to not only be more sustainable but also encourage their suppliers to do the same — an important component in what large companies such as Ford are doing.

Ford has embraced a vision to provide sustainable transportation that’s affordable environmentally, socially, and economically. The strategy for achieving this vision has three phases:

  • Near term, happening now: Begin the migration to advanced technologies, including advanced gas engines, hybrids, and cars powered by natural gas.
  • Middle term: Fully implement known technologies, including electric vehicles, in addition to concentrating on areas such as weight reduction.
  • Long term (which stretches, for now, to 2030): Continue with hybrid technology and alternative energy sources such as fuel cells and hydrogen-powered engines.

In a major shift, the focus of the company has moved from maximizing speed and power to making engines smaller and more efficient, and improving fuel economy.

A big push at Ford now is electrification. This year they’ll  provide a couple EV models, and by 2012 they plan to have 5 new ones available in the U.S. They also make moving to an EV as easy as possible for the customer: their cars provide in-car information including icons that show you how efficiently you’re driving, and when you by an EV from them, the Best Buy Geek Squad will come to your home to install a charger.

To address concerns about battery disposal, Ford is collaborating with other auto companies in the End of Life Vehicle Solutions consortium on requirements for disposal and recycling.

In addition, Ford is using more renewable resources in their manufacturing. They’re known for incorporating recycled blue jeans in their cars but also use materials such as hemp, flax, and switch grass as fiber reinforcements. Ford vehicles are 85% recyclable, and the goal is to get that number to 100%.

Ford purchases their materials locally when possible, and they also produce as many kinds of vehicles as possible in one place — something made possible in part by the fact that they use the same basic structure for many of their cars. Their Michigan plant, for example, produces gas, electric, and hybrid vehicles. That factory is also home to Michigan’s largest solar array, at 500 KW.

There’s no disputing the fact that Ford, like many auto makers, still produces gas-guzzling SUVs with low mileage. But the fact that such a mainstream company is getting into the business of sustainability bodes well. While electric vehicles still can’t be said to be cheap, Ford’s commitment to provide affordable cars for the average consumer will help bring them within the reach of more people.

How sustainable are these efforts toward sustainability? Ford has been moving in this direction since at least 2007, and given the positive financial benefits, they’re likely to continue. In fact, the poor economic climate encourages sustainability, which tends to positively affect a company’s bottom line. That, coupled with regulatory requirements and pressure from consumers, should help keep companies like Ford on the path to sustainability.

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