by Jack Rosebro
|Escape Hybrid at LOHAS 10.|
Yesterday, Ford Motor Company’s Niel Golightly, the automaker’s director of sustainable business strategies, presented some of Ford’s recent initiatives toward sustainability at the LOHAS 10 (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) conference in Santa Monica.
Ford is a major sponsor of the event, and several of Ford’s Escape hybrids were prominently displayed on the conference grounds.
Asserting his faith in the future, Golightly said, “Some people say that the auto industry will go the way of the fur coat or cigarette industries. I’m here to tell you that it won’t happen. People need cars. People need mobility.”
He acknowledged, however, that automakers, including Ford, are starting to “feel the pull” toward sustainability from many sources, such as energy costs, customers, and institutional investors.
The day is coming when customers will no more accept a car that produces greenhouse gases, is made from nonrenewable resources, or is made by exploited workers than they would accept a car without seatbelts.—Niel Golightly
Ford’s sustainability chief then introduced the audience to a pair of environmental initiatives: a partnership with TerraPass to market carbon offsets to owners and operators of Ford products (earlier post), and the introduction of renewable and recyclable seat fabrics to 80,000 as-yet unnamed Ford vehicles as of model-year 2007. Ford also plans to increase the recycled content of each vehicle’s interior to 25% whenever that vehicle is redesigned.
Terrapass offers Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury drivers the use of a carbon offset calculator to find out how much carbon dioxide their particular vehicle produces, as well as the effects of actions such as removing a roof rack or properly inflating the vehicle’s tires.
The energy sources for the carbon offsets are a wind farm in Nebraska and a methane digester at a dairy farm in Minnesota. Ford will promote the program with a point-of-purchase marketing campaign called Greener Miles.
The recyclable seat fabrics were developed by Interface, Inc., a major carpet and fabric manufacturer. According to a representative of Interface, the fabrics are made from “post-industrial waste”: fossil-fuel based plastics which do not meet top-tier quality guidelines for products such as soda bottles, and which are then sold to a secondary market.
Interface is reportedly investigating plant-based fibers from renewable sources; DaimlerChrysler and Honda have already begun to use such materials.
Interface began to focus on sustainability in 1994 after its chairman, Ray Anderson, read Paul Hawken’s seminal book, The Ecology of Commerce. Anderson later reflected, “For the first twenty-one years of Interface’s existence, I never gave one thought to what we took from or did to the Earth, except to be sure we obeyed all laws and regulations...Frankly, I didn’t have a vision, except ‘comply, comply, comply.’”
Interface is also one of the first US corporations to adopt The Natural Step, a science-and systems-based sustainability framework that is used by a growing collection of communities and corporations worldwide.
The Natural Step, or TNS, defines a sustainable world by the achievement of four system conditions, three of which are environmental and one that is socioeconomic. TNS uses techniques such as “backcasting” to envision a sustainable future, and then work backward toward the present from that future.
In a subsequent interview with Green Car Congress, Golightly acknowledged an awareness of The Natural Step, in part through his work with Interface. Golightly candidly stated that Ford’s definition of sustainability is very much a work in progress, and that in the future, new tools will be needed to address larger problems such as the predicted doubling of the world’s vehicle fleet within a generation, or the growth of a corporation’s total greenhouse gas production as a result of its economic expansion.
These are tough issues, and the wisdom of a constantly growing economy in a finite world has been questioned before, most notably in the 1970s. However, there is a renewed interest in limits to growth, and in the associated field of ecological economics.
Readers of our recent series on automakers’ sustainability reports here at Green Car Congress may also recall that Ford’s 2005 sustainability report defines sustainable development in economic, environmental, and social terms, and defined social capital as “the capacity of people in our communities to participate fully in both the production and consumption of our products and services.”
When questioned about such a definition, Golightly explained that it is a working definition limited by the company’s ability to influence “what we [Ford] can put our hands on.”
Plug-ins. Golightly also touched on the prospect of Ford-built plug-in hybrids, saying that the company is investigating the technology, but that three “significant issues” remain as barriers to production: battery life, warranty coverage, and safety.
It is likely that the first production plug-in hybrids will use lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery packs. However, Li-ion batteries are generally considered to be less stable than nickel-metal hydride, the current hybrid battery of choice. Much of the development of Li-ion batteries is focused on addressing those concerns.
In a subsequent breakout session at the conference, another Ford representative assured attendees that “the message [about plug-in hybrids] is coming through loud and clear.”
Addressing a question about Toronto-based HyMotion’s conversion of Ford’s Escape hybrids to plug-in hybrids (earlier post), the representative said that “we encourage our customers to be creative with our cars.”
Santa Monica’s LOHAS event was the tenth such conference presented in the US. Originally focused on personal care and health products, it is beginning to broaden its focus to sustainability in general. Although the popularity of the LOHAS acronym is growing in the US, it is by far more widely used and recognized in Japan than in other parts of the world.