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Published: August 26, 2005

 
 

Materials Witnesses

Christina Page, the Rocky Mountain Institute project manager for the consortium, recalls the sheer excitement that came from talking informally. “One of the auto industry suppliers said, ‘I get to talk to other car people all the time. Where else will I get the chance to work with people from Hewlett-Packard, Harley-Davidson, and Nike?’” For a few great months, it seemed as if Michael Braungart’s visionary future could become a reality; talk could reshape the world.

Roadblocks to Nirvana
Today, almost three years later, the effort is still under way, but momentum has slowed and goals have been scaled back. Nike, for instance, still participates in the broad materials pooling consortium, but its primary participant, Project Manager Vanessa Margolis, now focuses much of her effort on a separate leather tannery assessment initiative across the footwear industry — an initiative inspired, in part, by her experience in the materials pooling group. “Braungart’s conceptual idea of materials pooling led to a false set of expectations,” says Ms. Margolis. “In reality, when we step back and look at what we accomplished, it’s good stuff. But we haven’t achieved what the visionaries called nirvana.”

One fundamental roadblock, typical of many cross-organizational collaborations, was the differences among the companies themselves. This showed up most dramatically in the group working on hexavalent chromium. Pratt & Whitney and Sikorsky needed functionality; stainless steel was potentially acceptable. But Harley-Davidson needed beautiful, rust-resistant chrome for the kind of visible engine components that could endure exposure to a beach full of salt spray and emerge gleaming in the sun. If they couldn’t keep hexavalent, they’d have to find another kind of chrome. And Ford was part of the USCar consortium, which announced a decision to switch to trivalent chromium, a material approved by European regulations. All these differences eroded the group’s potential collective purchasing clout.

There were similar incompatibilities in sourcing leather — which must be very soft for automotive seats, hard for motorcycle seats and jackets, and waterproof for shoes. “We were looking for an environmental attribute or preference that might be shared by the different leathers and production processes that we all sourced,” says Ms. Margolis. “But we never defined what this attribute or preference might be. It’s the kind of design problem that probably nobody would choose on their own.”

Getting cooperation from suppliers was also unexpectedly difficult. Having agreed to canvass their suppliers for details about materials, many of the corporate members returned empty-handed. Some suppliers apparently suspected that this was just another tactic to squeeze down prices. Other suppliers had never kept track of their materials’ environmental pedigree — the detailed history of its previous uses (if it was recycled), its contact with contaminants, or its exact chemical makeup. And then suppliers had their own constraints; John Delfausse’s electronics supplier, for example, discovered that it did not have the contractual right to pass on the polypropylene to Aveda.

Another problem was the lack of formal sponsorship that participants had from their own companies. Materials engineers, in particular, had trouble getting their time and expenses authorized when many urgent needs demanded their attention at home. Harley’s Hugh Vallely remembers a technical specialist from a Harley supplier complaining to him about research he’d requested: “I’m doing this without a charge code.”

Consortium members talked openly about all these issues, but there was another, more hidden factor limiting the growth of the consortium: the discomfort members felt about sharing information with competitors. Ford quietly balked at inviting Toyota; Harley at Honda (even if participation were limited to Honda’s automotive, non-motorcycle branch); and Nike at Reebok or Adidas. At Aveda, which has spearheaded some industry-wide recycling projects (such as one for aluminum), Mr. Delfausse said he would need to think twice before sharing broader materials information with non–Estée Lauder cosmetics companies. Suppliers were also skittish about competition, which put the whole project in a sort of catch-22, because participating companies feared they could be vulnerable to antitrust charges if no competing suppliers were present, but they were unable to compel competing suppliers to join.

 
 
 
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