VW's sustainability path

VW's sustainability path

April 8th, 2011 in Opinion Times

More than 15 years ago, city leaders launched an effort to promote Chattanooga as a "sustainable city." Banners on light poles heralded the city's plans to pursue a broad spectrum of eco-friendly practices - environmentally oriented building methods, improved energy efficiency and greater use of renewable and clean energy, recycling and broader use of recycled materials, and closed-loop industrial systems to eliminate waste and pollution in manufacturing at its source.

But just as city officials were becoming proficient in the language of sustainability and familiar with the varied practices to achieve it, a new mayor walked in and turned the city into another direction. The result: Chattanooga fell from the vanguard of the sustainability movement to the back echelons - ironically, just at the time that major corporations around the world were embracing sustainable production practices for both corporate and environmental responsibility, and for long-term economic savings, as well.

Sustainable and profitability

Chattanooga's new sustainability office is trying to recover some of that last ground. Its Eco-Expo events this week should give it a shot in the arm. The event's headline speaker Thursday, Volkswagen's Dr. Gerhard Praetorious, the chief of VW's international corporate efforts to improve sustainability and environmentally sensitive practices at VW's plants in more than 20 countries, made clear why sustainable industrial practices are critical to the future and also have become the rising benchmark of industrial globalization.

Industries that want to excel, grow and maximize profits, he says, will simply have to hone the sustainability and efficiency of their manufacturing processes, and of the materials and resources they consume. That's so, in part, because of diminishing natural resources amid the rising consumer and mobility demands of vast new populations in rising industrial powers across Asia, especially in China and India.

Model for resource efficiency

The consequent demand-and-supply-driven cost squeeze is increasingly apparent also in China's bid to control the market for rare earth metals and compounds, and its rush to purchase future oil and coal contracts. It's also evident in the ever-increasing pressure on the world's reserves of fresh water, oil and other energy and natural resources that global industries consume.

VW's corporate mission with respect to resource efficiency and sustainable, environmentally sound buildings and production processes implicitly acknowledges the crucial linkage between corporate and environmental responsibility and economic savings and profit maximization, he said.

He used the paint shop in VW's new Chattanooga plant as an example. It accounts for 70 percent of the plant's energy consumption, and uses 50,000 gallons of water in a cycle, so improving its efficiency in both water and energy use was a critical goal. Engineering innovations in the new paint shop reduced energy consumption by 20 percent, and pioneered ways to wash paint over-spray by air, not water, leading to another dramatic reduction in the use of water, which is typically reused six times in VW's best plants.

The paint shop's air emission control system, as well, was reworked to further reduce emissions by improved filtering systems. Other energy efficiency improvements focused on the use of highly efficient generators and motors to drive the production system, the use of high efficiency and LED lighting in the plant, eco-friendly pavement and landscaping, and stream protection around it.

Railroad system is key

One of the largest environmental and cost savings at the VW plant involves rail shipment to dealers of 85 percent of its new car production. Use of rail will greatly reduce energy and transportation costs, and will dramatically lower the rate of air pollution that accrues to dealers supplied by the diesel-fueled trucking industry.

Savings all around

Such savings will all help VW's bottom line by improving its operating costs. City and utility ratepayers will reap the long-term benefits of the plant's reduced consumption of water and energy resources. And rail-use for distribution will improve the air across the country.

VW also encourages, and helps, its supplier plants to share its mission of corporate responsibility for the environment and economic savings through sustainable practices. It is furthering those goals, as well, by building cars which now are about 85 percent recyclable - and that number could rise if more ways were found to re-use recycled plastics.

VW's mission will be more critical for the next one of two generations than for the current generation, Praetorious agrees. But even now, he says, the company's environmental goal and investors' earnings merge already because of the economic benefit of sustainability practices. There's "no distinction," he emphasizes, in the goals of investors and the environmental mission of the company.

Higher mileage still a goal

He acknowledged that consumer choice has already kept it from building cars that would get two to three times the mileage of most of its cars now, but he says the company - like its competitors - is intensively researching and designing higher-mileage cars for the future. Part of its sustainability mission also includes partnering with Tennessee's research centers - at UT, UTC and Oak Ridge - to broaden the knowledge and resource base for higher technology gains.

The breadth of the sustainability mission is necessary, he affirmed, because rising consumer and mobility demands in global markets will necessarily be resource-efficient if they are to continue driving the global economy. In that sense, sustainability isn't an option, economically or environmentally; it's an imperative. Industries that plan to survive ignore it at their peril.