From Nike to OSHA: Sustainability is the New Plastics

Finally, a healthy bottom line and doing the right thing are on the same side of the ledger.

There is an often referenced scene from the movie The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman, where a family friend takes Hoffman’s character aside and gives him a piece of advice on how to be successful; it’s one word: plastics. [See video to the right.] If one of my nieces or nephews were graduating today, I would take him or her aside and whisper a similar piece of advice, also one word: sustainability.

Today, sustainability is the one idea reaching into every segment of business and society, from green technology to school lunches to safety programs. Sustainability is both the destination, a world where commerce has a positive impact on the environment, and the vehicle, unlocking value at every stage of the production process and keeping employees and the community safe.

For that reason, companies are making sustainability a key component of their strategic plan. Similarly, MSDSonline, leading provider of on-demand environmental, health and safety solutions (EH&S), is on the front line of the sustainability push and is making big changes to its suite of on-demand EH&S solutions to assist medium and large size companies in their quest for sustainability – but, more on that in a moment.

Fortune 500 Catching the Sustainability Wave

A wave is not exactly the right image. It suggests a one-time event that swells and then subsides or crashes onto the beachhead with little impact. Sustainability is more of a tsunami or a river that has broken the dam and overrun its banks, permanently reshaping the landscape. As a business practice and a safety imperative, sustainability is here to stay.

Recently, I’ve come across several articles and websites that illustrate the power and potential of the sustainability push. The first article was in the September edition of Fast Company. It’s an expose of Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike, written by Ellen McGrit. The article focuses on Parker’s creativity and vision, but further in, also talks about Nike’s focus on sustainability.

In the article we learn that Nike has a Vice President of Corporate Responsibility – an increasingly popular title according to the New York Times – Hannah Jones, who has 130 people on her team. We also learn that in their first audit, Jones’ team looked at “all processes for efficiency, toxicity, energy impact and safety” and uncovered $800 million a year in wasted materials.

From this audit, Nike developed the Considered Index, a series of metrics that “helps determine the environmental impact of each item Nike makes.” Nike has even developed software to help designers factor in the environmental impact of their creations from the get-go.

Other Nike successes outlined by McGrit include replacing the toxic solvents used to “bind the sole to the shoe” and greenhouse gases inside the Nike Air pockets with less harmful alternatives. Parker says, on the topic of disruptive change, "There's this internalization of how critical it is to deal with sustainability. As we're out here trying to wave the flag, it's very satisfying to see that.”

Another Fortune 500 giant on the sustainability path is Kraft Foods [disclaimer: customer]. In April, Kraft published a Responsibility Report that outlined the successes it has had with its sustainability efforts.

Business Brains, a great feature on, listed highlights from the report, including news that Kraft had cut net waste from its manufacturing plants by 30 percent, reduced energy use by 15 percent and water usage by 30 percent. Also highlighted was Kraft’s announcement that 70 percent of its North American packaging is recyclable. Like Nike, Kraft’s sustainability efforts are eco-friendly, value-producing, and not least of all, marketable.

Kraft’s website effectively tells the story of its sustainability efforts, allowing customers and investors to view Kraft as something more than a food company. [My favorite page features nature sounds and makes a terrific white-noise generator.] Kraft says it is looking “across our supply chains – from farm to fork – for unique opportunities for positive change.”

For Kraft, Nike and others, it’s not just positive change for positive change’s sake. There’s profit in sustainability, and customers are starting to vote with their pocketbooks. Consider the results of a recent DuPont customer survey which found that 89 percent of respondents thought “delivering products with environmental benefits is a long-term market opportunity.” And 95 percent of respondents reported that “customer demand is a key driver for developing products with an enhanced environmental profile.”

The magic words are ‘customer demand.’ People, consumers, are taking an active role in understanding what chemicals and processes go into their products, especially if the creation or disposal of said products has long-term consequences for their communities.

MSDSonline has experienced this first hand. Currently, our MSDS and incident management and compliance tools provide industry-leading and sustainable solutions to EH&S challenges. Nevertheless, MSDSonline is rolling out a new platform in early 2011 that will give customers features like chemical inventory management and environmental regulatory reporting.

Going forward, it’s not going to be enough to know what chemicals you have, you’ll need to know exactly where they are and in what quantities. MSDSonline’s new platform will provide that functionality and give companies the ability to identify (and potentially replace) the most hazardous chemicals used in their facilities and products.

On this last point, Alliance Magazine recently published an article entitled Working for Greener Health Care in which it listed eight major sustainability issues outlined by the Novation Environmental Advisory Group. The list was targeted at healthcare suppliers, and one item that jumped out from the list was the suggestion that suppliers disclose the chemical and material composition of its products.

In the article, a sustainability coordinator for a major metropolitan hospital is quoted as saying, “A lot of hospitals are looking for manufacturers to step up to the plate so we can align our values and promote our sustainable program. That’s what we are looking for – partners in the sustainability journey.”

As odd as it may sound, one partner in that journey may be the government. Agencies like the EPA and OSHA are moving away from old, labor intensive and inefficient systems and actively looking for ways to incorporate electronic processes into their regulatory practices. Furthermore, the Department of Labor and NIOSH are looking to be active players in the creation and the making safe of “green jobs.”

For a preview of what’s to come, read Dr. David Michaels’ remarks at last December’s NIOSH Going Green Workshop. His speech was entitled, Making Green Jobs Safe: Integrating Occupational Safety & Health into Green and Sustainability. Or better yet, take a look at the Department of Labor’s Sustainability Toolkit. These items point to an active governmental presence in all things sustainable.

At OSHA, Nike, Kraft and MSDSonline, and on the ledgers of companies big and small around the world, sustainability is the new black.