Combining Environmental Caretaking with Sound Economics, Sustainable Development Is a New Way of Doing Business

By Gibney, Kate | ASEE Prism, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Combining Environmental Caretaking with Sound Economics, Sustainable Development Is a New Way of Doing Business


Gibney, Kate, ASEE Prism


Cleaning Up On Cleaning Up

It's time to change the toner in your printer, so you drop the new cartridge into your machine, put the old cartridge in the box the new one came in, stick on a prepaid return label, and mail it back to the manufacturer. Guess what? You just played an important role in the sustainable development process.

Customers returned 65 percent of all empty printer and copy cartridges to Xerox for recycling in 1997, an industry high. And most probably did it with little thought of closing the loop of manufacturing, use, recycling, and reuse.

Xerox has been reclaiming metals from its product components since 1967, and "unofficially" accepting trade-in machines from customers for almost as many years. The company initiated its Environmental Leadership program in 1990, with the goal of producing waste-free products from waste-free factories. Today, remanufactured machines are a significantand profitable-part of the company's product line, and new products are designed so they can be recycled. In 1997 alone, Xerox remanufactured equipment from more than 30,000 tons of returned machines.

"The more we close the loop in the product delivery process, the more we discover the environmental and business benefits of doing so," according to the company's position statement. "By remanufacturing and designing for the environment, we reduce our costs, minimize the effect we have on the planet, and please our customers. We are convinced that being good to the environment is also good for business-and have every intention of keeping it that way."

Recycling, around since at least the first Earth Day in 1970, has long been promoted as a strictly environmental issue and is often couched in terms that pit it against business and industry. But in reality, recycling and environmental issues in general are also important economic issues, and business and industry play a vital role in the success of recycling programs.

Business and industry's efforts to find a balance between environmental and economic interests has bred a new way of thinking and created the sustainable development movement.

Birth of a Movement

Overpopulation. Rain forest destruction. Pollution. Diminishing natural resources. Concern for these and other environmental problems has resulted in consumer calls for the corporate world to take better care of the planet as they tend to their bottom lines. Yet these same consumers also want new jobs, better products, and quality services from profitable companies. Sustainable development may be the answer to these conflicting demands.

More than just a plan to balance environmental and economic issues, sustainable development has evolved into a movement; Our Common Future, a 1986 report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, is its seminal document. Also referred to as The Bruntland Report, the document defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Policymakers and environmental scientists spent the next decade refining the underlying ideology.

Over the same period, governments around the world embraced sustainable development efforts with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The Netherlands and other western European countries have lent substantial government support to green technology initiatives. Russia, many of the former Soviet Bloc countries, and most of the Arab world have been slower to embrace them. In the United States, the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD), established by President Clinton in 1993, spearheads national-level debate over how to achieve a new type of prosperity based on sustainable development. Its 30 members include representatives from industry, government, and environmental, Native American, and civil rights organizations. The secretaries of agriculture, commerce, energy, and interior also sit on the council, along with Carol Browner, the administrator of the U.

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Combining Environmental Caretaking with Sound Economics, Sustainable Development Is a New Way of Doing Business
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