Europe and California have been behind the wheel when it comes to most environmental decisions in the auto industry.
Carmakers and their suppliers have reconfigured fuel tanks and systems to meet emissions requirements in California. New demands that automakers in Europe take responsibility for the recyclability of their cars at the end of the vehicle life has prompted decisions on material selection on both sides of the Atlantic for firms anxious to produce similar cars for multiple markets.
But a new group backed by General Motors Corp., the Environmental Protection Agency and more than a dozen suppliers is pushing for a new voluntary emphasis on green issues throughout the entire auto industry.
``Europe has driven all of the action on the end-of-life programs,'' said Rebecca Spearot, the first chair of the auto industry's Suppliers Partnership for the Environment. ``This is all about trying to improve the entire environmental footprint we all have.''
The year-old organization is working to expand its reach now, but already has committees up and running looking into improvements in design, optimal energy use, balancing the environment and business initiatives and establishing specific ways to measure the impact of production.
``We're looking at areas where there are tremendous opportunities to decrease both the environmental and economic costs,'' Steve Hellem, executive director for the Washington-based Suppliers Partnership, said during a Sept. 15 telephone interview.
The program grew out of a study GM did at its Saturn assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., along with the EPA, which pinpointed improvements in production and a reduction in environmental impacts.
``We identified real opportunities to improve both the environment and the competitiveness of companies in our supply chain,'' said Pat Beattie, director of environmental services for GM.
The partnership aims to take some of those same discussions across the breadth of the supply base - ranging from interiors giant Lear Corp., where Spearot also is director of environmental management, to companies like Petoskey Plastics Inc., a blown polyethylene film manufacturer in Petoskey, Mich.
Individual companies may have spotless production records, Spearot said. The group is not designed merely to pass on rules for in-house recycling or the handling of used fluids. Instead, it aims to affect the overall picture.
Designers, for instance, may say they want a shiny look to a component. Engineers could select a specific resin to meet that request. But there may be an alternative material - one that is easier to process and with lower energy costs for the same price. Those types of discussions can make a difference, Spearot said.
``Each company may be able to tell you what their emissions are from their factories or from their car, but they can't tell you exactly how much their suppliers could improve the environmental picture, `` she said. ``As you move down the supply chain, you start dealing with the nuts and bolts - but those are the nuts and bolts and fasteners going on almost every automobile.''
The group is organized specifically to encourage a variety of businesses to join, Hellem said. Membership dues are based on each company's size and begin at $250 annually. Once in the organization, though, businesses can qualify for grants to cover the cost of EPA seminars that otherwise could cost thousands of dollars.
Its workforce also is looking at ways to measure the exact costs of green thinking, he said.
``You have to be able to make a business case,'' he said. ``We're not just looking at the environment for the environment's sake.''
SP members are seeking more members, with 19 firms signed on so far. The genesis may have come from GM, but the group is pushing for involvement by every automaker.
``We want this to be broader than just GM, and so does GM,'' Hellem said. ``To the extent that we can reach out to every company out there, we will.''