Fred Keller is talking about sustainable manufacturing, and the process of launching environmental production for real savings, when he finds a specific example to prove his point.
``Let's say that your objective is to work toward zero impact, and you try to reduce your cost and reduce your impact by cutting back,'' he said in a Sept. 16 interview at Cascade Engineering Inc.'s head- quarters in Grand Rapids.
``We don't need all these lights on, for instance,'' he said, walking over to turn off half the overhead lights in the conference room. ``I can cut my consumption and I can cut my electrical cost by reducing the wasted energy. That's about getting leaner, and we've been doing lean [manufacturing] for a long time.''
Sustainable manufacturing, said Keller, president and chief executive officer of injection molder Cascade Engineering, is the next big step for companies. While there is an environmental benefit to clean production, it also makes real business sense for companies that set real goals.
Consider just one statistic from Cascade's environmental focus by reducing waste, the 1,000-employee company cut its landfill costs from $181,306 in 2003 to just $26,372 in 2007.
The company also has reduced its water use, cut its greenhouse gas emissions and found environmental approaches that have brought it new business and helped it recruit young workers.
``Sustainability isn't just about the sandal-wearing, tree-hugging environmentalists,'' Keller said. ``Sustainability is about starting with the desire to do it and then figuring out creative solutions.''
It is also, he said, a key to what he terms the ``next industrial revolution'' as manufacturers adjust to a world in which resources are in increasingly short supply from the building blocks of resin to the fuel to ship finished parts to customers.
``The new definition of industrial revolution that we're under is that we have fewer resources and a lot more people,'' he said. ``That's hitting us, and we've got to figure that out. The winners are going to be those who focus on that and say: `I can come up with products that will solve that problem.' ''
Keller, who is also chairman of the Department of Commerce's manufacturing council, said sustainable manufacturing is a key agenda item the council plans to focus on during the next president's administration.
Keller is not coming at sustainability from the lofty perspective of a college classroom although he does teach a course in sustainable manufacturing at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. or the limited manufacturing exposure of a new company. Cascade is a 35-year-old injection molder of parts for the office furniture, automotive and solid-waste industries.
``There's always a benefit to having people who not only preach their ideas, but also are practicing them, and running companies that are profitable and making products,'' said Emmanuel Giannelis, who heads Cornell's department of materials science and engineering.
Cascade has practiced its own spin on corporate citizenship for years, with a ``welfare-to-career'' program that boasts a 97 percent retention rate for bringing new employees into the workplace.
Sustainability felt like a natural expansion of its social programs, Keller said. Improving the workplace environment added to the lifestyle of Cascade's workers and their neighbors, but at the same time Cascade found that making a sustainable impact also boosted its finances. The firm now issues an annual ``triple bottom-line'' report showing its progress in social, environmental and economic goals.
``We're beginning to call this `meshing gears,' '' Keller said. ``The typical view of sustainability is that it is a zero-sum game that you're taking away from your bottom line if you do something good for the environment or good for society. The traditional thinking is that you do your job and give a little to charity to satisfy your social side.
``The meshing gears show that they're all interrelated. They help each other, and we've found that as we move our ecological capital, it helps drive our financial capital, and our financial capital helps drive our social capital, which helps drive our ecological capital. They reinforce each other, as opposed to taking away.''
There are two different approaches to sustainability, the ``denominator strategy'' and the ``numerator strategy,'' Keller said. The denominator strategy sets a target, such as reducing waste by a certain level, then looks at ways to reach that goal. With the numerator approach, a company looks at products it can create that are more sustainable.
A company just beginning its environmental journey may begin with simple steps to cut waste.
Cascade's waste-reduction focus includes placing recycling bins in every department to encourage people to separate their trash, while a volunteer team leads quarterly ``dumpster dives'' to track its recycling by looking at the garbage and seeing what they've missed that should have been recycled.
Beyond encouraging recycling, the company reduces use in the first place by simple steps such as automatically setting every printer and copier to print on both sides of the paper decreasing the paper used in the first place.
The company also took a sustainable approach to its new headquarters by creating a facility designed to use less energy from the start. Large windows allow natural light into offices, which helps cut energy consumption by 21 percent. Each room is equipped with sensors to turn off lights if no one is there. Motion sensors at each sink help cut water use inside, while outside, the landscape features drought-resistant ``prairie'' planting, which cuts irrigation costs by 98 percent.
In all, the company spent about an additional 5 percent to outfit the building to standards needed to match the U.S. Green Buildings Council's standards for a platinum level in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building program.
But, Keller said, those programs not only paid for themselves, they'll pay for the cost of the entire building within 15 years.
The numerator strategy comes next, as companies find that the innovative approach to rooting out waste also extends to finding new products they can turn out in the process.
Cascade, for instance, began looking for a way to use more post-consumer resin. By using coinjection molding, it created EcoCart, a residential rubbish cart with 30-50 percent recycled content. Customers embraced the cart because it gave them something new to offer communities that wanted a more environmentally friendly product.
``This is taking something that was an existing business and creating sustainable products,'' said Samia Brown, Cascade's marketing director.
Cascade is unusual in its ability to marry technology like coinjection molding with sustainable products such as the EcoCart, Giannelis said.
The firm's desire to invest in wind power led it to the wind turbine created by Renewable Devices Swift Turbines Ltd. of Edinburgh, Scotland. The wind gen- erator is small enough with a 7-foot blade and quiet enough to be placed on a building.
As Cascade began looking over the turbine, it realized it could injection mold the rotor, replacing an expensive carbon-fiber part. Now Cascade has a new business making rotors and distributing the turbines. It also has two turbines on one of its Grand Rapids plants, generating part of its energy use.
``We started down the path of trying to do something good for the environment, and by golly, we discovered a new product,'' Keller said.
There are also benefits to sustainable manufacturing that are hard to measure but still make sense in the long run, such as luring top talent, he said.
``The young generation, the so-called `millennials,' want to live in a place that is clean, safe and green,'' Keller said. ``Once you start working on your environmental impact, and they're working on theirs, the community benefits. As the community benefits, it becomes more attractive to fresh, young talent and then we have a better labor pool, we do better work and we're more profitable as a result.''