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Champions of CSR: More From Al Zucco of USG and John Kim of Herman Miller

February 8, 2011

The following article originally appeared on the Forbes.com CSR blog,by James Epstein-Reeves.

In yesterday’s article we heard from Al Zucco, Senior Director, Energy & Sustainability at USG Corporation, and John Kim, Better World Marketing Manager at Herman Miller. In today’s article, we’ll continue our conversation with Al & John and we’ll conclude our series on champions of CSR with an exciting interview with John Replogle, President & CEO of Burt’s Bees.

As a company that is primarily business-to-business, how does sustainability help you help your customers?

Al Zucco: Typically, in the building industry, architects and specifiers have a detailed understanding of the important sustainable attributes of products that help them design sustainable spaces. USG understands this and works closely to ensure that we design some of the most environmentally friendly building products available today. Many of our products help meet or exceed the requirements of the industry’s most popular green building and sustainability standards, including LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). From the product formulations we choose, to the processes we employ, USG is committed to products that are designed, manufactured, distributed and used in a sustainable way and minimize overall environmental impact.

John Kim: Many businesses, whether they truly want to or not, are trying to be more sustainable.  “Green” has become the new “normal” and businesses have realized that in order to compete for business and talent, they need to show that they care about their impact on the environment. Buying Herman Miller furniture can help businesses demonstrate that commitment to the environment to all of their stakeholders. On a practical level, many of our products can help a business in gaining LEED certification.

We also have a program that helps customers give a second life to their old furniture. Through the rePurpose program we work with customers to remove their old furniture, lighting, carpeting, etc. and redistribute it to deserving non-profits in their community. This helps customers demonstrate their environmental values while also supporting their communities; we see it as a real win:win. Lastly, having a long history in sustainability we have been able to share some of what we’ve learned with many of our customers and competitors alike. We truly believe that we all benefit by sharing when it comes to sustainability.

How has your company responded to the economy while still keeping its sustainability commitments?

Al Zucco: Managing through the unprecedented decrease in building has presented USG with one of the most challenging times in the history of the building industry. USG has remained steadfast in our commitment to operating as a sustainable company with unrelenting support from our Executives and the entire USG team. As an example, we released our environmental sustainability initiative, EcoBlueprint in 2009 and published our first Corporate Sustainability Report, Building in Harmony in 2010 and outlined our priorities to enhance energy management, improve resource utilization and develop responsible customer solutions.

John Kim: Being good stewards of the environment is engrained in how we do business.  And while the last few years have been tough, our commitment hasn’t wavered. In fact, in 2010 our CEO continued to include 3 environmental goals on his own scorecard of 13 total items. And he and his executive team approved a new environmental policy statement that bolstered the previous policy as well as included additional targets, such as being carbon neutral, to our already ambitious 2020 Perfect Vision goals of:

  • Zero landfill
  • Zero hazardous waste generation
  • Zero air emissions (VOC)
  • Zero process water use
  • 100% green electrical energy use
  • Company buildings constructed to a minimum LEED Silver certification
  • 100% of sales from DfE-approved products

As of 2010 we’re 91% towards our 2020 goals, but we know it’s the last bit that is the hardest to overcome, and we’re going to continue to work tirelessly to reach our goals.

Does your company try to influence your industry to become more sustainable? If so, how?

Al Zucco: USG influences our industry to be more sustainable through the many avenues including active participation in standard development organizations and discussions including ASTM, ANSI, ASHRAE, IgCC, UL Environment and many others. We believe that it is our responsibility to engage in the organizations and discussions that establish our industry’s best practices, standards and regulatory activities.

John Kim: Yes. We have individuals from our company involved in many different trade groups and business consortiums that are developing industry standards and protocols for sustainability.  One example would be the involvement of Herman Miller employees in the development of the BIFMA level standards. Another example would be the little-known fact that we were one of the co-founders of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) in 1994. It might seem strange that a furniture manufacturer was an integral part of forming the body that developed the ubiquitous LEED rating system, but to us, it was a logical extension of our beliefs.

The built environment has a huge impact on the environment and we were proud to be part of this effort to improve the industry. And I’d say we’re even prouder, 17 years later, of how it’s matured and impacted the building industry around the world. A more recent example would be our inclusion as the first major contract office furniture manufacturer into the ecoScorecard system, a web-based tool that helps architects and designers document and calculate the impact of products for LEED certification.  It’s a tool that we believe will help make “green” building easier by making the documentation and application process simpler and more streamlined. We signed on as the first company, but we’re actively encouraging other manufacturers, large and small, to adopt the system because we believe that the true benefit for the user will be when they can spec an entire project, not only products from Herman Miller.

Odd question, but I’m curious to get your take on it. Since being a sustainability/CSR professional requires leadership skills, business acumen, and ability to influence, do you think we will ever see a CEO of a major public company that “started out” as a sustainability practitioner?

Al Zucco: I can see the day when we will see the CEO of a major public company who started out as a sustainability practitioner in the near future. The CEO is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a corporation, essentially sustainability over the long term. He or she sets the vision and strategy for the corporation, drives the culture and values of the organization, and is responsible for the social, environmental and economic performance of the company. Needless to say, the skills that are essential to being a successful sustainability professional are well aligned with those of a CEO.

John Kim: We see environmental advocacy as only a part of a larger equation that we call “a better world,” something I mentioned to begin this interview.  We don’t use the phrase CSR (corporate social responsibility) because at Herman Miller, we think it represents something much bigger than a responsibility. In fact, since our current CEO, Brian Walker, took over five years ago, we have had “creating a better world” identified as a corporate value  It follows logically that by integrating working for a better world into our corporate values, along with performance and design and inclusiveness, our leadership automatically includes that kind of thinking into our business strategy.  It’s not a stretch that one day a Herman Miller leader will be promoted to CEO because he or she made a demonstrable impact in one of our fundamental corporate goals–creating a better world around you.

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