Sustainable Practices Breed Innovation

Do you use a cell phone? A personal computer connected to the Internet? Chances are that you have a hard time picturing life without either device.
But how about 20 years ago? Chances are neither was a part of your life.
The contrast was used by David Sandalow, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, to illustrate that innovations can move quickly. In 20 years, things that are unusual today may be equally ubiquitous—plugging in a car, getting power from solar panels on the roof, and knowing how much energy is used by home appliances such as your refrigerator.
But such innovations won’t just happen on their own, noted Sandalow at the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado’s annual statewide roundtable.
Many of the most dramatic stories about rapid transformation in how we use energy, water and materials  are coming from major corporations. They are realizing that sustainable practices help reduce costs, increase revenues, boost brand integrity and reduce risk, noted Steve Wilton, training director for Natural Capitalism Solutions.
“Sustainability is the new gateway into American innovation,’’ he told the Alliance roundtable participants.
And some of the biggest proponents may be surprising. Wilton said NASCAR has the largest recycling program in sports, finding ways to reuse vast quantities of tires and oil, as well as promoting the use of  “American grown American made’’ ethanol.
Closer to home, Ball Corporation has made sustainability a top priority for a host of reasons including gaining a competitive advantage, improving innovation, making operations more efficient, reducing costs, and retaining workers.
Gerri Walsh, Ball’s U.S. Sustainability Director, explained how that works in practice to attendees at the November Executive Night Speaker Series at Regis University.
Ball makes billions of recyclable containers annually and has focused on making the cans lighter as well as increasing the recycling rates. Since 1970, the weight of a 12 ounce aluminum can has been reduced by about   40% in the U.S. while steel cans are about 33% lighter, Walsh noted. The latest process improvement focuses on reducing the weight of  can “ends’’ by 10% which Walsh said could save 10,076 tons of aluminum annually in the U.S.—the equivalent in pollution prevention of taking 26,000 cars off the road. Ball’s aluminum cans already use 68% recycled materials.
And Ball doesn’t stop with focusing attention on its core product. Bjorn Kulmann, Ball’s European Sustainability Director and a recent transplant to Colorado, cited ambitious goals for the company as a whole. For example, in 2010, Ball achieved an 18% reduction in greenhouse gases, in part by reducing energy consumption by 10% between 2005 and 2010. The company has a long-term goal of sending zero waste to landfills.
Why did Ball decided to make sustainability such a priority? One reason stems from a desire to be a good steward of the environment.  But Ball also realized it could reap financial benefits – and when cost savings merge with the feel-good factors of keeping employees engaged and helping create a sustainable future, the case grows more compelling.
While major businesses are leading the way on sustainable practices in large part because they see the economic benefits, markets will be key to moving beyond fossil fuel dependency for consumers as well.
As Sandalow noted, consumers currently only have one choice – petroleum- when they need to fuel their vehicles. “”When the price goes up, the choice is to pay more or stay home,’’ he said. “”We need to move to a world with other choices.’’
Sandalow is most excited by electric vehicles, believing they represent the future. “”As long as vehicles run on oil, the pressure to develop oil will grow,’’ he noted.

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