Panel of company heads discusses corporate sustainability efforts

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - 7:33pm

John Viera, Global Director of Sustainability of the Ford Motor Company, participates in a panel on how large organizations can drive sustainability at Rackham on Wednesday.

John Viera, Global Director of Sustainability of the Ford Motor Company, participates in a panel on how large organizations can drive sustainability at Rackham on Wednesday. Buy this photo
John Yaeger/Daily

Panelists representing an array of corporations and companies admitted sustainability may not seem synonymous with corporate America — but the tide, they all emphasized, is turning. John Viera, global director of sustainability at Ford Motor Co., Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer and vice president of environmental stewardship, health and safety of the Kellogg Co. and Andy Buchsbaum, vice president of conservative action at the National Wildlife Federation, discussed how companies and nonprofit organizations can drive sustainability in front of an audience of about 60 people. 

In the auto industry, Viera said a key to a company culture that focuses on sustainability is making sure each sector of the business — from finance to engineering — has a goal of being sustainable.

“We really rely on all of the different functions to deliver sustainability,” Viera said. “Our role is to do that translation for them.”  

In measuring sustainability at Kellogg, Holdorf said efforts are often difficult to present in dollar amounts. Finding metrics and setting goals within the company, he said, are key.

“Metrics matter and outcomes matter,” Holdorf said. “When we start to talk about climate change, that’s hard for people to sometimes wrap their head around.”

Speaking about the auto industry, Viera said Ford still has to meet customer demand in a market where many customers do not want to drive hybrid or electric vehicles.

“I think from a customer standpoint, when we talk about doing the right things with our products, we shouldn’t just expect the customer to pay for the cost,” Viera said. “We need to be more creative.”

Viera said Ford addressed this by creating more economical cars that also meet customer demand, such as the new aluminum F-150 truck.

“We still wanted to make money on the F-150, so what we did was, with the lighter vehicle, we could actually now pull a lot more and put more payload in that vehicle — as we emphasize the other attributes of that vehicle, we’re now getting premiums while at the same time delivering fuel economy,” he said.

Working at a nonprofit focused on conservation, Buchsbaum had a slightly different perspective. While conservation is difficult to quantify in dollar amounts, he said, monetary value can sometimes sway the conversation on sustainability — as it did with a University of Michigan study that outlined the economic benefits of restoring the Great Lakes.

“This university was a major player in developing a study on what are the economic benefits of restoring the Great Lakes,” Buchsbaum said. “(The National Wildlife Federation) had a message all along — the Great Lakes are a way of life … they transcend money, but then we came out with that study and that was the thing that swayed the argument.”

Rackham student Prathmesh Gupta said he was interested in going to the event to hear about how companies like Ford and Kellogg practice sustainability.

“I’m just trying to learn more about where each piece in the whole puzzle of sustainability fits in,” Gupta said.