Clean & Green Production: Balancing Act

Every movement needs a poster boy. And for carpet makers and their embrace of all things green, it is Interface founder Ray Anderson, whose stirring and now well-documented eco-epiphany in 1994 changed the course of his company and his industry. But Anderson’s conversion did not occur in a vacuum. At about the same time, LEED was born, and architects and interior designers began asking suppliers, “What’s your environmental story?” Com­panies responded by scrambling for answers. That question, however, did more to transform the carpet business than any single person, policy, or initiative. Today nearly all of the major companies have substantial environmental programs in place (see Carpet Matrix). In fact, not having a credible green story has become a major business liability.

But what are we to make of these competing claims? It often feels as if an engineering degree is required to parse them all. And for good reason: the challenge of greening a dirty petroleum-dependent process is a complicated one. To move forward the carpet companies had to fundamentally reexamine how they made their products. Perhaps no outfit has a longer history incorporating green thinking into that quest than Milliken & Company, the venerable textile and chemical manufacturer that began hiring “environmental engineers” as early as the 1960s and now employs more than 200 of them.

Milliken has a strong environmental story. The company has cut emissions by roughly 18 percent in the past two years. Since 1995 it has reduced energy and water consumption by half (and set a goal of an additional 50 percent reduction by 2008). It operates several small hydroelectric plants (one of them since 1912), which power factories and kick back excess electricity to local grids. For the past eight years the carpet division’s manufacturing process has been zero waste (meaning nothing went to landfills). And the entire company is enamored with trees: 92-year-old chairman Roger Milliken drives a car with a “Trees Are the Answer” bumper sticker; Milliken plants a million of them a year and sustainably manages 138,000 acres of carbon-sequestering forests. But the company is driven by engineering know-how, and the heart of its green push is the continual refinement of its man­ufacturing processes. “Sometimes we’ve gone on a cost-saving campaign,” says Bill Gregory, Milliken’s director of sustainable initiatives, “and found there were tremendous sustainability results by focusing on how we reduce costs.”

And yet if you were to conduct a poll of architects and interior designers to ask, “Who’s the most sustainable carpet company?” it is not likely Milliken would crack even the top three. The reason may have more to do with who they are than what they’re doing. Founded in 1865 and headquartered on a sprawling 600-acre arboretum in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Milliken is something of an anomaly in today’s business world: a large, diverse global company with direct family links to its founding fathers. “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Gregory of the company’s eco-efforts, “but we’re privately held and don’t necessarily share everything we do with the outside world. We had to convince Mr. Milliken that we had to share what we were doing environmentally. After several discussions he agreed, though his first comment was, ‘The environment is just like health and safety. We do it because it’s the right thing, not because we want to use it as a marketing platform.’”

This summer, in somewhat typical Milliken fashion, the company began inserting a phrase into its corporate communications: “Milliken & Co., a carbon-negative manufacturer.” Thanks in large part to Al Gore, the idea of carbon footprinting (measuring the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted over the life cycle of a product or service) has entered the mainstream lexicon. Being “carbon neutral” quickly became the über-goal of the environmentally conscious, and one of the more controversial tools for attaining that elusive goal is the carbon offset, a way of compensating for your own emissions by investing in other activ­ities that reduce greenhouse gases. A number of well-intentioned companies and individuals have bought their way to carbon neutrality, but Milliken’s position was different: here was a major industrial manufacturer claiming (quietly, of course) that its vast acres of forestland were removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than their smokestacks were emitting. Was that possible? And more important, how do you verify that?

Milliken is currently involved in a pilot study with Leonardo Academy, an environmental think tank developing consensus standards for emis­sions inventories, reduction credits, and offsets. The Madison, Wisconsin–based group is a member of the American National Stand­ards Institute, which coordinates the development of voluntary consensus standards for industry. What the research study hopes to do is establish a set of market guidelines for emissions trading in the future, when there are likely to be mandatory restrictions on emissions and energy use.

If there are no legally enforceable standards for global conduct (Kyo­­to was merely a start, and it has struggled without our participation), what good are voluntary efforts? “We all think regulation will happen, but it’s a question of when,” says Michael Arny, president of Leonardo Acad­emy. “In the future what we’re likely to get is a mix: people choosing to buy from environmentally sustainable companies and government regulation doing its part to address emission reductions. That’s one of the values of the voluntary markets. They demonstrate how the marketplace can play a role in driving down the costs of achievement.”

Although the final report on Milliken is not complete, and the study involved other organizations and a broad range of emissions issues, Gregory says of his company’s carbon footprint, “We’re carbon negative by quite a substantial amount—somewhere in the ratio of eight to ten to one.” Arny, an engineer, is a bit more circumspect, though he reaches roughly the same conclusion: “What our analysis shows is if Milliken gets a little bit of credit for the carbon sequestered in existing forests, they will be sequestering more carbon than they’re emitting.”

It’s worth noting that most current carbon-footprint analysis does not recognize the carbon stored in existing trees since doing so merely rewards the status quo, leaving emissions levels and total forestland unchanged. Arny thinks that approach is shortsighted. “If you want to increase the total amount of forests, it’s obvious that maintaining existing ones is just as important as planting new ones,” he says. “It’s going to be important to recognize the carbon that’s sequestered in existing forests so that they have the same incentive for being maintained as new ones do for being planted.”

So then what does it mean to be certified as a carbon-negative manufacturer? Both Leonardo Academy and Milliken would be the first to tell you that it’s a crucial but narrow measure of environmental impact. “I do not understand this drive to collapse all environmental issues into one thing,” Arny says. “It’s really important to broaden the discussion from just carbon emissions to also include those that are bad for human health. You want to look at the overall environmental footprint—how we use water, how we use land, how we use all of the other resources that go into the products that we purhase.” Ironically, Milliken’s biggest decision in an emissions-regulated future won’t be whether or how to publicize its negative carbon footprint, but what to do with its increasingly valuable carbon credits: sell them to the highest bidders (and worst polluters) or retire them for the public good. In the meantime the company’s engineers will keep refining the process to produce the best eco-offset of all real emissions reductions.

7 Steps in the Lifecycle of a Green Product

1. Innovation: The Shape of Things to Come

2. The Right Materials: The Vinyl Question

3. Clean & Green Production: Balancing Act

4. Efficient Distribution: Delivering the Goods

5. Low-Impact Use: A New Standard

6. Made to Last: The Chair

7. Avoiding the Landfill: Afterlife

Related Sidebars

What It Means to Be Green

Green Carpet Matrix

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