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Quality Digest

Management

Just What Is Corporate Responsibility, Anyway?

Parables of botany and fermentation provide an answer

Published: Thursday, June 18, 2015 - 15:45

When asked a direct question, telling the truth is always a good option, so is giving a direct answer. That being said, sometimes a parable is worth a thousand words.

“The kind of seed sown will produce that kind of fruit. Those who do good will reap good results. Those who do evil will reap evil results. If you carefully plant a good seed, you will joyfully gather good fruit.”
—Dhammapada

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
—Matthew 13:33 New Living Translation

So, what is corporate responsibility? The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) explains it this way, “... a comprehensive set of values and principles, integrated into business operations through management policies and practices as well as decision-making processes... This involves a company’s approach to the production and marketing of goods and services, business ethics, health and safety, environmental practices, treatment of employees, community engagement, and human rights—all of which should form part of an integrated management system.”

Granted, the ICC does a tidy job of distilling the meaning of the term. The term “corporate responsibility” however, is still evolving as evidenced by the interchangeable use of the terms “corporate responsibility” and “corporate sustainability.” Interested parties and “shareholders” want to know what this means to them—specifically. But sometimes, a parable provides an illustrative foundation of understanding that transcends a direct answer.

The General Motors sustainability program permeates companywide

From its infancy in the 1970s, the idea of corporate social responsibility has evolved from a too oft token nod to the now ubiquitous corporate sustainability report. Sustainability reports, however, are not always a reliable indicator of the degree to which a company’s culture of responsibility is inoculated. When a loaf of bread rises properly, it is called proofing. So it is with corporate responsibility. When a company’s culture of responsibility manifests in myriad ways in multiple facilities and countries, that is the proof of desirable permeation.

No company has a spotless record and General Motors (GM) has taken its share of lumps. From bankruptcy in 2009 to the ignition switch tragedy, the auto giant has endured quite a beating, but like an accomplished prizefighter continues to do what it does best—provide the world with high quality automobiles. Although GM may not be the Kingdom of Heaven, their plethora of initiatives, programs, and accomplishments are strong indicators of a company dedicated to corporate responsibility.

At the 2014 Environmental Leader Product & Project Awards, GM earned “Top Project of the Year” for its initiative on “Driving a Global Movement for Zero Waste.”

“What we’re doing about waste is a perfect example of approaching sustainability from a business perspective” says David Tulauskas, GM’s director of sustainability. “By thinking of waste as a resource out of place we’ve been able to create new revenue streams.” Indeed, according to GM’s sustainability report, its Flint Metal Center’s waste-reduction efforts resulted in nearly $31 million in recycling revenue in 2012 alone.

“We’re not only trying to use our materials efficiently and recycle, but also close the loop,” explains Tulauskas. “We use repurposing tactics like converting incoming packaging into headliner soundproofing and utilizing paint sludge and used machining filter media to manufacture reusable engine pallets. This allows us to keep materials inside the value chain.”

GM’s efforts have resulted in a whopping 122 company sites boasting landfill-free status. “Every landfill is a liability waiting to happen,” says Tulauskas. “If we don’t send anything to the landfill, we’re reducing our risk.”

GM is also a leader in efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. According to GM’s Fast Lane article, over the past year, GM has made several moves to further reduce its carbon footprint:
• Reduced 158,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from energy efficiency and fuel switching projects, the equivalent of powering 22,000 U.S. homes for a year
• Converted two coal-fired boilers to natural gas at its Wentzville, Missouri, assembly plant for carbon reduction of 57,000 tons. That’s equivalent to the carbon sequestered by 1.5 million trees
• Invested $24 million at Orion, Michigan, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, assembly plants to increase landfill gas usage and avoid 23,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually
• Engaged logistics suppliers in carbon reductions and change of delivery and shipping routes to cut CO2 emissions by 62,000 tons—the equivalent of energy use by more than 5,600 homes in the United States
• Added nine new and 22 repeat achievers to list of facilities that met the U.S. EPA ENERGY STAR Challenge for Industry—contributing $72 million to total program savings and reducing energy by 23 percent

When GM signed the Ceres Group’s Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP) in 2013, it planted a big flag in declaring a proactive stance within the automotive industry. GM was the first automaker to sign the declaration. “It was a very high-level decision that we were not going to stay on the sidelines, but rather lead proactively,” says Tulauskas. “Today we remain the only automaker to have signed the BICEP. The reason I’m so fired up about that is it talks about addressing climate change as an economic opportunity.”

Apparently, GM leaders’ dedication to responsibility has inspired employees throughout the company to become involved as well. Employees at the GM plant in Romulus, Michigan, engage in creative upcycling, community outreach, and even a “Trash-to-Treasure Challenge.” Forty GM facilities worldwide maintain certified habitat programs. Fifty employees from those facilities submitted wildlife photos that the company compiled into an intranet wildlife calendar. The list of involved employees goes on and on. It’s kind of like the proof in the pudding—or in three measures of flour, so to speak.

“It’s a great proof point about who we are and where we’re going,” Tulauskas points out. “And that’s reflected in what we’re doing with our products, what we’re doing at our plants, what we’re doing through our people, and with strategic partnerships.”

But if you had to sum it up...

“Too often ‘sustainability’ is confused with environmental initiatives, but sustainability is more than doing something for the environment. It’s a way of doing business and there’s also a societal aspect to it. It’s all about how to operate a business that drives economic, environmental, and societal benefits,” Tulauskas concludes. “At the end of the day, our intent is to move all of us to operate in ways that reduce our impact on the environment and addresses some of the social issues while providing economic benefit—that’s sustainability.”

Discuss

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For 39 years Quality Digest has been the go-to source for all things quality. Our newsletter, Quality Digest, shares expert commentary and relevant industry resources to assist our readers in their quest for continuous improvement. Our website includes every column and article from the newsletter since May 2009 as well as back issues of Quality Digest magazine to August 1995. We are committed to promoting a view wherein quality is not a niche, but an integral part of every phase of manufacturing and services.