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Does Ford Have a Better Idea About Sustainability?

Defining Sustainability: Part Three of Eight
[Ed. note: We’re publishing the Ford piece in two installments. This week’s piece provides background context.]

By Jack Rosebro

The cover of Ford’s Sustainability Report

Ford Motor Company is the automaker most closely associated with the acceleration of society’s acceptance of the private automobile. While most automakers cite a long, yet often tenuous commitment to sustainable practices, Ford is also among the few that can reach down into its roots and come up with numerous examples of initiatives that are strikingly similar to some of today’s efforts towards sustainability.

In 1925, Henry Ford, the company’s founder, told the New York Times that “the fuel of the future is going to come from fruit...or from apples, weeds, sawdust...there’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.” The world’s petroleum industry, of course, went in another direction.

Many of Ford’s early business efforts were directed at reducing costs and exploring ways to combine the transportation and agriculture industries, especially after farmers were stuck with surplus crops and falling prices during the Great Depression.

The Soybean Car. Henry Ford is standing to the right.

Henry Ford is widely quoted as having remarked that “if we want the farmer to be our customer, we must find a way to be his.” In 1941, Ford exhibited the “Soybean Car,” a lightweight plastic-bodied experimental vehicle, at the Dearborn Days community festival in Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford’s company was (and is) headquartered.

The body of the car was reportedly composed of soybean, wheat, hemp, flax, and ramie fibers in a phenolic resin. Some Ford vehicles were upholstered in a 25% soybean fabric, and Henry Ford would often sport a suit made from soybean fiber at media events.

The 2003 Model U

As part of its centenary celebration in 2003, Ford Motor Company exhibited the Model U concept SUV, which revisited many of Henry Ford’s early concepts. Soy products were used in the production of grease, body panels, and seat foam for the vehicle, which was powered by a modular hybrid powertrain that included a supercharged, hydrogen-fueled 2.3-liter engine.

At the time, David Wagner, Model U’s technology project manager, pointed out that “some of these concepts won’t come to fruition for years to come, but this is an important first step.”

The Model U was designed with help from Bill McDonough, who, with chemist Michael Braungart, popularized the “cradle-to-cradle” concept in the book of the same name, published in 2002. The cradle-to-cradle concept opposes the prevailing and non-sustainable cradle-to-grave manufacturing which, the book argues, is marginally delayed by even the best recycling practices.

In a cradle-to-cradle product design, which is an example of nature-inspired design often referred to as biomimicry, materials never become waste, but are nutrients that can remain in the biological cycle by either feeding healthy soil or returning to the manufacturing processes instead of moving downstream.

River Rouge plant in its heyday.

Perhaps the most famous collaboration between Ford and McDonough is the well-known redesign of the River Rouge manufacturing plant. Once the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world, it employed more than 100,000 workers at its peak in the mid-1930s.

Built on the banks of the Rouge River, the facility unloaded Upper Michigan iron ore and Pennsylvania coal directly from freighters. Glass, paint, and cement factories were part of the complex, which boasted over ninety miles of railroad tracks and turned raw materials into completed cars and trucks.

But by the 1980s, the River Rouge plant was outdated and inefficient. More importantly, it had completely polluted the River Rouge watershed. Despite a decade of cleanup efforts, the river was considered to be among the nation’s most polluted waterways. Often running brown or yellow, it had reportedly caught fire several times.

In 1999, Bill Ford Jr., who was serving as the chairman of Ford’s board of directors at the time (he is now also the company’s CEO), announced a plan to transform the River Rouge complex into “a model of sustainable manufacturing,” again with help from McDonough’s Charlottesville-based architectural and environmental firm William Mcdonough+Partners.

Drought-resistant living roof composed of sedum, growing on top of the Dearborn Truck Plant final assembly building, designed to offset GHG production and reduce building energy costs.

Writing in Resurgence magazine in 2002, McDonough stated that “if I can design a building that makes more energy than it needs to operate, then I’m designing a building like a tree.” McDonough’s plans largely concern landscape design that includes over 500,000 square feet of living roof cover which can hold up to several inches of rainwater, rather than creating runoff into the Rouge River watershed, as well as specialized plants that absorb contaminants in a process called phytoremediation.

Notable as these commitments may be, they do not help customers or investors discern exactly what Ford Motor Company means when the company refers to sustainability.

Next week: Ford, part II: Defining sustainability, and measuring up.




Wow, another example of how great true inovators are. These people were true visionaries. Behind every great technology is a great mind. It's sad how their legacy usually ends up exploited unscrupulously by corporations. If I were to ever become a great inventor I would defend my ideas with all my will and all my strength from the corporate vultures.


That's how inventors end up dead or in jail.


That's how inventors end up poor. :)

tom deplume

The car weighed only 2/3 of what a total steel structure would have. The fuel reduction would have been impressive.


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