I don't know about you, but when I hear the phrase "giant multinational corporation," the next phrase that usually comes to mind is not "responsible resource management for the greater good." So when I first read the story about General Motors' new Brazil plant that is likely to earn LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, my first thought was: what's the catch?
So far, I haven't been able to find one - and I've tried, I really have. It begins to look as though this may actually just be a pretty cool project. It will be an engine plant in Joinville, which is in southern Brazil, and when it opens by the end of this year, it will have a pretty impressive list of features that promote sustainability. To name a few:
+ Solar energy will power lighting on the manufacturing floors and in offices, and will heat 15,000 liters of water per year.
+ Sewage will be treated not with chemicals but with filtering gardens, which will be integrated into the surrounding landscape (I wonder if tour guides like to spring that on people at a psychological moment while strolling the grounds. "That was a great picnic. Say, guess where we are?").
+ Water will be conserved by using rainwater to flush toilets and using low-flow, sensor-equipped faucets.
+ A reverse osmosis recycling process, which uses a membrane technology filtration system, will purify all the tap water used at the plant.
This plant will be the first in Brazil to use the filtering gardens and the reverse osmosis system, the first solar energy system in Brazil's auto industry, and GM's first Brazil plant that will be landfill-free.
These features, among others, will go far toward securing GM that LEED certification. If it does achieve it, this plant will be GM's third LEED-certification facility; the other two are its assembly plant in Lansing Delta Township and its China headquarters in Shanghai. GM's already working on #4, as well: the same Joinville complex where the engine plant is underway will also house a transmission plant, slated to open in 2014.
So, aside from acting on its deep love of the Mother Earth, why is GM doing this? What's so special about LEED certification, anyway?
First off, the US Green Building Council (USGBC), which established LEED certification in 2000, is more about practical carrot and stick incentives rather than talk and finger-wag ideology. From jump street, the objective was to create an industrially viable system that corrected some of the economic dysfunctions that had been keeping many corporations from investing in responsible and sustainable resource management. Or, put another way, a dysfunction that all but encouraged manufactures to use whatever methods and materials they wanted, however they wanted, and to dump the leftovers wherever they darn-well pleased.
The economic dysfunctions were bi-directional, too: first, there was no disincentive to polluting or wasting resources. Any price to be paid was paid by people who drank the water or breathed the air, not by the polluters themselves. Second, there was very little economic incentive for companies to invest in more sustainable practices and systems. Sure, the drinkers and breathers would benefit, but that doesn't move the bottom line beyond the smidge of consumers not dying off too early to spend all their consumer dollars. On the other hand, companies that were behaving responsibly had to spend yet more resources to let the public know about it, and even then gambling that said public included some people that cared one way or another - it's not like the masses were screaming for recycled denim in their headrests, right?
Anyway, that first type of dysfunction was tackled by regulatory bodies and a general growing sense among the public that putting toxic waste in the kiddies' swimming hole is not cool. You could call that the stick. The second type, USGBC saw, called for a carrot. So they created LEED - a certification with several levels that companies have to work hard to earn, but that they can then incorporate into all of their public relations, marketing, and branding.
Today, when a company says that one of its facilities or buildings (the designation applies only to the actual physical structures, not to the company itself) is LEED-certified, it helps the company appeal to potential customers who already think sustainability is important, and it helps communicate to the rest of their customer base that LEED is important, thereby creating a feedback loop of awareness.
There's another factor in this shift toward sustainability as a business model, and that's Brazil. What's the big deal with Brazil? How did that fine Samba nation manage to get so completely on the ball? Glad you asked. Brazil, it turns out, is fifth in the world in LEED certifications, with 302 projects (that's an average increase of 48 percent every year since the Brazil Green Building Council bestowed their first one in 2002). Brazilians have managed to turn a set of environmental liabilities (deforestation, air pollution, land degradation, and some severe problems with water pollution and availability) into economic opportunities, by becoming a leader in the development of environmental remediation technologies.
Water-related technologies in particular are advancing quickly in Brazilian industry. Green building is in the middle of a boom as well. It's partly on the strength of these developing capabilities - which have been fostered and promoted by the Brazil Green Building Council - that Brazil managed to secure the rights to host the World Cup in 2012 and the Olympics in 2016.
So, as hard as it might be to accept, it looks as though some of the policies government is creating to shape the way companies interact with the environment are actually working. I know, I feel the same way - I'm pretty comfortable with having governments and big corporations in the interchangeable roles of bumbling incompetents or evil geniuses. I don't know if I can adjust to thinking they might be working effectively - much less working together
effectively. But I'll have to try - after all, the alternative is as appetizing as a dip in that toxic swimming hole.