Defining Sustainability: Part Five of Eight
By Jack Rosebro
|Honda’s simplified rendition of its life cycle assessment (LCA) system, dividing corporate activity into domains and identifying the environmental impact of each, as well as policies designed to reduce or remove such impacts.|
Perhaps no automaker is more closely associated with environmental performance than Honda Motor Company. Honda has a long track record of building vehicles that produce exhaust emissions that are far below allowable limits. Its CVCC engine, popular in the 1970s, was the first internal-combustion engine that could meet Clean Air Act requirements solely through engine performance, rather than exhaust after-treatment.
And twenty years ago, when California was still one of the few parts of the world with a vehicle emissions inspection system, even high-mileage older Hondas in that state—some of which were so clean that they did not require catalytic converters—were statistically some of the cleanest cars on the road, often besting later-model vehicles built to more stringent requirements.
Honda has also often enjoyed holding the prize for US-market car with the highest EPA fuel economy rating. For example, their 1991 CRX HF—a quasi-predecessor to the company’s first hybrid, the Insight coupe—was rated at 49/52 miles per gallon by the EPA.
But times change, and although today’s Insight is indeed thrifty at EPA’s rating of 61/68 miles per gallon, Honda also produces the Ridgeline, a 4,500-pound truck that is EPA-rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city, 21 on the highway—a dubious milestone in Honda’s environmental history.
Still, Honda’s overall portfolio of environmental research and development is impressive, and the company is not known as a follower: in 2004, Honda CEO Takeo Fukui emphasized, “The words of our founder, ‘Do not imitate others,’ are burned in the minds of everyone at Honda.”
Honda’s R & D department is legendary in the automotive world, and the engineers in that department have been quite busy in recent years. Some of Honda’s most recent initiatives include:
Hydrogen and polyfuel solutions. Honda is aggressively pursuing hydrogen fuel cell commercialization, including its Home Energy Station (HES) cogeneration concept (earlier post) that would use natural gas to supply a home with heating and electrical power, as well as hydrogen for home refueling of a fuel-cell vehicle, while producing less greenhouse gases than conventional energy systems. Honda commercialized a simpler home cogeneration unit, which can power dwellings but does not produce hydrogen, in 2003. Honda also recently announced its next-generation hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle, currently called the FCX Concept (earlier post).
Solar energy. Honda plans to enter the solar energy market in 2007, producing its own CIGS (copper/indium/gallium/selenium) photovoltaic cells for use in homes—and, intriguingly, vehicles (earlier post).
Genetic research. A collaborative program between Honda and Nagoya University has led to the isolation of a gene which accelerates the rate of growth of Koshihikari, the most popular variety of rice in Japan.
Aviation. The HondaJet prototype business jet reportedly gets 40% better fuel economy than comparable aircraft—a promising achievement, given that few solutions are available to lower the massive greenhouse-gas production inherent in commercial air travel.
Robotics development. One of Honda’s next-generation ASIMO robots, designed to “help people and live with people,” starts work as a receptionist next month at a Honda office north of Tokyo. ASIMO can run at about 4 miles per hour.
|Results of Honda’s rice work.|
But when it comes to the challenge of sustainability—tying environmental and social initiatives together to form an integrated business model that allows a corporation to flourish without degrading the world around it—Honda is silent.
Indeed, the word “sustainability” is completely absent from Honda’s corporate 2005 Environmental Report, which covers activities in Japan during the 2004 fiscal year. “Sustainable” is used only twice, and only then in passing. Even Honda’s North American environmental report does not mention the word.
This is not to say that Honda does not recognize the gravity of the environmental problems that its products have helped to create—in fact, there are signs that Honda is willing to be more frank about the subject than most of its competitors.
In a marked departure from the positive spin so often present in automakers’ environmental reports, Honda’s CEO Takeo Fukui tackles the problem head-on, flatly stating the challenge: “We aim to become a company that people all over the world want to exist.”
Honda’s Environmental Statement adopted by the company in 1992, states:
As a responsible member of society whose task lies in the preservation of the global environment, the company will make every effort to contribute to human health and the preservation of the global environment in each phase of its corporate activity. Only then will we be able to count on a successful future—not only for our company, but for the entire world.
The statement is supplemented by four guiding principles, covering recycling, waste disposal, individual responsibility, and influence of the corporation on its local environment and society. Assessment of the environmental burden that Honda places upon the world is divided into domains such as development, production, purchasing, and sales.
Information is given on environmental targets set by Honda, and it is notable that the reduction or elimination targets for “substances of concern”—natural toxins such as lead, mercury, and chromium—are pursued more aggressively in Honda’s facilities in Japan than in their facilities outside Japan.
|The Wako building and the CO2 benefit.|
As Ford has done with its revitalized Rouge River complex (earlier post), Honda has taken to constructing new facilities with an eye on environmentalism. Its Wako Building, completed in late 2004, was designed to reduce total life cycle CO2 emissions during all phases from construction to operation.
Natural light and Honda’s proprietary solar panels help to reduce energy-related CO2 output by more than half compared to a comparable yet conventional building, according to Honda. The building’s roof is partially landscaped to offset CO2 production and collect rainwater, minimizing runoff.
Recycling is, not surprisingly, a large part of Honda’s environmental efforts, given that the Japanese government enacted the End-Of-Life (EOL) Recycling Law in January 2005 for automobiles. Despite referring to its recycling efforts as “cradle-to-cradle”, these efforts are more in line with conventional recycling philosophy.
|The fate of old filters.|
“Cradle-to-cradle” generally refers to a nature-inspired product design in which 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.
Honda now collects automobile components from its dealerships in Japan, and reuses some of those components in replacement parts. Although more than 80% of the average car sold in Japan is reclaimed or recycled, the remainder is pulverized into automobile shredder residue (ASR).
As landfills in Japan are rapidly filling up, government regulations required the reduction of previous ASR levels by 30% as of 2005, with further reductions of 50% by 2010 and 70% mandated by 2015. Honda also recovers refrigerant CFCs and airbag inflators from vehicles it accepts for recycling.
As is so often the case, Honda’s report does not suffer from a lack of data. But data is data; data with context is information. As with the sustainability reports that have been examined in previous weeks, this reporter finds the information in Honda’s 2005 environmental report to be, more often than not, lacking that context.
For example, Honda reports that about 400,000 kilograms (around 440 tons) of xylene were released into the atmosphere from Honda’s Hamamatsu, Suzuka, and Kumamoto factories during the fiscal year 2005. However, the report does not explain how and why xylene is harmful (it is a powerful aromatic solvent that can affect the brain and mucous membranes, but is broken down into less harmful chemicals by sunlight or soil), does not compare xylene discharge for fiscal 2004 to previous years, does not describe whether or not such emissions led to unhealthy air surrounding the factories, nor does it explain what methodology was used to arrive at such figures.
The absence of such data, tedious though it may be to present, makes it impossible for the reader to decide whether or not Honda is moving forward or backward with respect to its handling of xylene at those factories.
A random data point, therefore, highlights a key drawback of this and indeed all of the sustainability reports examined thus far in our series: If a company does not employ and display a transparent methodology for measuring, comparing, and presenting data, how can potential consumers and investors compare that company’s information with the information presented in successive or previous environmental reports?
And finally, if Honda is to remain a company that people want to exist, how long can it do so without a specific mandate to work toward a sustainable existence?
Next week - Defining Sustainability, Part 6: Hyundai and the Hydrogen Economy