General Motors is Going Green (Really!)

Sometimes it's the good news that's hardest to hear. In the field of business ethics, I've observed a law of nature about what people pay attention to. "Good Company Turns Out To Be Bad"--that's a grabber. "Bad Company Reforms its Ways"--that's a snooze.To break through this snooze effect, allow me to pull out my trumpet as I announce good news. Blat, Squawk. Well ok, how about a nice chord on the piano. General Motors is going green. Environmental stewardship is a reality at the largest manufacturing company in the world. I cannot over-emphasize how big this is. You and I could recycle cans all our lives, and never touch what one engineer at GM can do in a single year. The amazing thing is, the folks there are sincere.Now, "sincere" is an odd word to apply to General Motors. But it's one of my personal measures of corporate integrity, and I've found that it's possible, to some degree, to get a sense of it.I've had my sincerity antennae up since 1994, when GM signed the CERES Principles, a rigorous environmental code that only four Fortune 500 firms have adopted. GM followed up with annual environmental reports, offering real numbers like these:* Total amount of Toxic Release Inventory chemicals released in 1992--47 million pounds.* Released in 1994--40 million pounds.Now, admittedly, this is more than a thimbleful. But it's declined annually. Since 1988, GM has reduced TRI chemical pollution 40 percent. This inventory is required by the federal government, so it's only mildly heroic to publish it. But reducing the chemicals is not mandated. GM must have gone to some lengths to cut them nearly in half.And that's not all. Internal energy use per vehicle produced is down 12 percent since 1987. With packaging waste, nearly 60 percent is recycled--and the aim is 100 percent by the year 2000. GM's 1995 cars have all been converted to non-ozone depleting air conditioners.Environmental performance is now part of compensation reviews at GM, and the company's WE CARE pollution-prevention program has become a model for Ford and Chrysler.To see if all this was really real, I called Joan Bavaria, president of Franklin Research and Development, a Boston social investing firm. She helped invent the CERES Principles, and had been in lengthy discussions with GM, over many years. I asked for her gut-level reaction about their sincerity."I love them," she said. "The people we work with have a lot of integrity. It's a different company than it was, and it's different than the other big auto firms. There are very progressive, very good people in high positions. This company is clearly making an effort to transform."Wow.To double-check, I called Joel Makower, editor of The Green Business Letter, and one of the country's leading experts on environmental business. "I'm just now doing research on them, and I'll know more in a week," he said. In his digging, he discovered something GM was reticent to talk about. They were integrating environmental concerns throughout the supply chain--sending out teams of engineers to help suppliers eliminate waste and reduce energy, as part of their PICOS quality initiative.Why were they reluctant to talk? "We wanted to wait until we could say 'This is what we've already accomplished, and here's what we still need to do,'" said Terry Pritchett of the corporate affairs department. They didn't want to toot their own horn prematurely.Makower's conclusion: GM is "one of the world's leading champions of industrial eco-efficiency." And it's "not just window dressing," he added. "It's driven by cost-reduction considerations."So it was real. At the magazine I edit, Business Ethics, we decided to stick our neck out and give a Business Ethics Award to GM--which we did in our November issue. We thought it would be controversial, surprising--you know, big news.Yes, there was a story on the Associated Press wire, a few radio and TV mentions. Did you see any big headlines?The law of nature proves true once again. The largest manufacturer in the world really, sincerely cares about our environment--and is taking significant, measurable steps. That's nice, people said. And turned over to snooze.

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