Xerox: Walking the Talk on Sustainable Business?

xgs_calkins_final.JPGCan a company that manufactures copy machines, and sells more paper than any other single brand, really walk the talk on sustainable business practices?

That question framed my response to an offer to talk with Patty Calkins, Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety at Xerox Corp. After all, don’t copy machines “[consume] vast amounts of water, paper, and energy…?” I’ve seen numerous press releases on environmental issues from the company whose name is now synonymous with “photocopying,” but I was still skeptical: isn’t this still a business model built on heavy inputs of energy and paper?

Patty and I talked on the phone last Wednesday (April 9), and, as in other situations, my reservations were addressed directly and concretely. I had forwarded a version of the above question prior to our talk, so she was ready for me. Among the company initiatives she detailed for me:

  • Xerox has a history of taking “green” steps forward early: double-sided printing functions in 1969; recycled paper products in the early ’70s; automatic power-down functions on some of its machines in the early ’80s; involvement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to create the ENERGY STAR standard; a “waste-free” push in the ’90s that included “our essentially inventing remanufacturing.”
  • The company had set a greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 10% (over a 2002 baseline) by 2012. It actually met that goal at the end of 2006, so it has set a new goal of 25% reduction by 2012. Patty was candid about the fact that “we really don’t know how we’re going to get there” (a claim I’ve heard from other corporate executives).
  • Xerox is the world’s largest seller of cut-sheet paper under a single brand, and started taking steps to address the sustainability of it paper supply chain in the late ’90s. Initiatives have addressed supplier practices, including chemical processing and bleaching of paper, adherence to an environmental quality standard (preferably ISO 4001), and meeting a sourcing standard for wood fiber such as Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Canadian Standards Association, and others. The company has recently received “Chain of Custody” certification from the FSC.
  • Finally, Xerox works with customers and clients to reduce their own environmental impact (and not just their carbon footprint, but also water and air pollution, biodiversity and forest impact, and waste creation). Recent developments on this front have included its sustainability calculator, which measures the environmental impact of upgrading to new, more efficient equipment, and “High-Yield Business Paper.”

“Walking the talk” isn’t simply a PR phrase for the company, according to Patty, but a conceptual foundation for how they do business. That “walk,” of course, isn’t simply based on altruism: the company sees real opportunities to create value through implementing sustainable business practices.

Of course, Xerox (like other large corporations) has been targeted by activist organizations directly and indirectly: Greenpeace ultimately praised the company’s decision to stop “stop using fibre from SΓ‘mi Reindeer Forests in northern Finland” in 2005 after a campaign; the Rainforest Action Network claimed (also in 2005) that Xerox supplier Weyerhaeuser’s logging practices violated “the legal, social and ecological commitments that allow them to log on public lands in the province of Saskatchewan,” despite the Canadian Standards Association’s certification of those practices as “sustainable forestry.” While that RAN campaign didn’t target Xerox directly, it did call into question the validity of CSA certification. The Saskatchewan Forest Service denied any illegal operations in the forest (though RAN claimed SFS “selectively enforces its laws…”)

Ultimately, some will judge Xerox by its response to activist campaigns. Overall, though, their approach to the sustainability of their business is based on a solid foundation : measurable goals that apply across the supply chain and lifecycles of products they sell and lease. I got the sense from Patty that the company was engaged in an ongoing learning process, and working creatively to locate (and relocate… constantly) the nexus between sustainability and value creation. Issues will come up, of course, in part because the company has publicly declared its commitment to greener practices. They’ve clearly set themselves on the path, though… and that’s worth praising.

Want to take some small steps to green your office? Browse our selection of recycled paper.

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