Speaking in Boston in May 2010, Fisk Johnson, the fifth-generation family member to lead S.C. Johnson & Son Inc., the Wisconsin-based maker of consumer goods such as Pledge and Ziploc, urged his business colleagues to get off the incrementalist path. “We need disruptive progress,” GreenBiz.com reports Johnson saying. “We as businesses squeeze a little bit of waste here, reduce energy use there. But are we really making fast enough progress to head off the resource crunch?”
The simple answer, of course, is no. “Even if every company on earth emulated the practices of the best companies,” said Johnson, “it would not be enough.”
He should know. Johnson, a Cornell University–trained engineer, led his company to a Presidential Green Chemistry Award for Greenlist, a trademarked process that the company developed to identify and evaluate the environmental footprints of its products and processes. (See www.scjohnson.com/en/commitment/focus-on/greener-products/greenlist.) The company’s engineers and designers use this process to explore the trade-offs involved in removing dangerous ingredients from its products. For example, the company removed polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) from Saran Wrap — a move that health and environmental activists applauded, but one that rendered the product less useful. Without PVDC, the plastic wrap is less clingy and less effective at containing moisture and odors.
“Today,” Johnson told the packed ballroom of executives in Boston, “this product, which was around from my childhood, is almost gone. We still feel this is the right decision. However, there are [only] so many of those decisions you can make before you put yourself out of business.”
Smart businesspeople like Fisk Johnson as well as environmentalists are converging on one new truth: The degree of change delivered by incremental solutions is not enough to address some critical environmental problems — including toxins in our soil, water, and air; climate change; and our dependence on fossil fuels. What’s needed is transformational change that enables leaps in policy, procedure, and the very way we do business — the kind of change necessary to move from business decisions that are environmentally correct, but that devastate product lines and profits, to decisions that deliver business value, yet don’t damage the environment. In order to make progress on several critical environmental fronts, a radical rethinking of the basic building blocks of business is required, as is an entirely pragmatic eco-redesign of many products.
Perhaps a sea change in the way we think about business and the environment is already under way. A number of books have made the welcome shift from the endless rehashing of environmental threats to a new set of visionary solutions. They add up to a sort of industrial reboot that ambitiously promises to solve our most pressing environmental problems with a new set of innovations, reform even the most basic disciplines (such as chemistry), and ignite whole new industries.
It seems as though it should be common practice for companies to analyze their products and processes to determine their potential to harm the environment or human health. Yet only in the last few decades have the majority of companies begun to think about these impacts.
For the most part, materials and chemicals have traditionally been judged almost solely on their cost and performance, both in the manufacturing process and in the finished product or service. This has led to a host of environmental and health problems, including lead in paint, asbestos in homes and schools, and bisphenol A in baby bottles and water bottles.
“Of the 30,000 or so chemicals currently in common commercial use, the environmental and health impacts of only about 4 percent are routinely monitored,” writes Elizabeth Grossman in her powerful book, Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry. “Some 75 percent have not been studied for such impacts at all.”