Retail Lessons from 3M: Making Pollution Prevention Pay (Part 1 of 2)
March 22, 2012
By Jesse LaRose
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on how retailers can apply the sustainability lessons of 3M to their businesses.
It is easy to look at retail sustainability leaders such as Kohl’s and Office Depot to learn lessons on how to green your retail operation, but what can be learned from the supply chain?
Consumer and industrial products giant 3M is a sustainability pioneer dating back to when it launched the Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) program in the 1970s. More recently the company achieved accolades from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy, Interbrand, BusinessWeek and others for reducing its worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 70 percent and waste to landfills by more than 60 percent over the last 10 years.
So what lessons can retailers learn? Michele Whyle, 3M’s head of sustainability and quality, reviewed a couple of key attributes about the company’s corporate culture that contribute to 3M’s sustainability successes, which any company can embrace.
A Sustainability Culture
To put these factors into perspective, Whyle offered an interesting 3M history lesson: “At 3M, sustainability has been a key part of our corporate culture for years. It’s part of our DNA, and is probably best exemplified by our 3P program.”
Dr. Joseph Ling, former staff vice president, environmental engineering, is recognized worldwide as the father of pollution prevention.In the 1970s, while the newly formed EPA was focusing on pollution control, 3M under Ling’s guidance was breaking new ground, Whyle explained. Ling was focused on eliminating pollution at the source through product reformulation, process modification, equipment redesign, and the recycling and reuse of waste materials. “It seems like common sense for us now, but much of the pollution prevention movement started at 3M with Dr. Ling,” Whyle said.
Ideas spawned by 3P quickly spread through 3M’s organization through employee-led technical forums where employees across business units with similar research interests collaborate and share ideas. In 2010 alone, collaboration around 3P resulted in 550 projects that prevented more than 244 million pounds of pollution and yielded savings of $75 million, according to Whyle.
Today, every employee at 3M is encouraged to spend 15 percent of their time focused on projects of their choosing that are outside of their core responsibilities. Whyle shared one story about 3M’s 15 Percent Time program where a scientist spent his time over a couple years working to determine how to make adhesives without using solvents or water. 3M made a significant technological breakthrough when it discovered how to make adhesives spread on products like Scotch Brand Magic Tape by replacing solvents with water. This particular scientist took it to the next level in his 15 Percent Time and discovered how to make certain adhesives without either.
“Just think of the environmental impact,” Whyle said. “We are now able to make 8,000 gallons of adhesive in an 8,000 gallon reactor instead of 4,000 gallons of adhesive mixed with 4,000 gallons of water or solvent. This creative technological breakthrough has far-reaching environmental impact -- less energy used, less packaging and energy required to transport the adhesive, virtually zero emissions during tape coating processes, and tremendous improvement in manufacturing operational efficiencies. Breakthroughs like this were critical to achieving our 70 percent GHG emissions reduction and many came from 15 Percent Time projects.”
Supply Chain Efficiencies
3M not only looks inside its “four walls” to drive sustainability, but also conducts in depth lifecycle analyses of all products as part of its new product development process. This includes thoroughly vetting the claims of all suppliers and auditing them when necessary.
“When we develop a new product, we ask important questions at the start,” Whyle said. “How can we limit the product’s impact on the environment? How will we distribute it? And how will it ultimately be disposed of? Cross-functional teams analyze the total lifecycle of the product and verify all claims with the suppliers across the globe. Then, after the product is introduced, we continually drive innovation to reduce is environmental impact.”
As a retailer, you may be asking how 3M applies to your business. If you just checked your contacts looking for someone who might be your company’s Dr. Ling and came up empty handed, fear not. In next week’s column we will outline several ways retailers can leverage the successes of 3M to reduce operational expenses, engage employees and better manage the supply chain.
Jesse LaRose is the President of ESE Solutions, a sustainability consulting firm that helps retailers achieve their environmental goals while reducing expenses. The U.S. EPA has contracted with ESE Solutions to provide enhancements and publicize the resources of its Retail Industry Portal. Jesse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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