View from the C-Suite: Owens Corning's CEO Mike Thaman

Owens Corning is a leading global producer of residential and commercial building materials, glass-fiber and engineered materials. A Fortune 500 company for 56 consecutive years, Owens Corning employs approximately 16,000 people in 28 countries. In 2006, the company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings stemming from asbestos-related medical claims dating back decades. Owens Corning has invigorated a commitment to "creating sustainable products for today, tomorrow and future generations" and, in 2010, the company ranked 57th on Newsweek's green index.

GreenBiz.com's Heather King talks with CEO Mike Thaman about the fundamental link between fiberglass and carbon reduction, innovations in longer, lighter blades for wind energy, and how Owens Corning uses 1 billion pounds of curbside recycling to insulate our attics.

Heather King: Since its founding in 1938, Owens Corning has become the world leader in fiberglass, which is commonly used for insulation, but has been tagged as energy intensive in its manufacture. Given the company's history and the environmental complexities of the industry, what is the business case for Owens Corning's sustainability commitment?

Mike ThamanMike Thaman: We are the market leader in insulation, and insulation is the starting point for energy efficiency in buildings -- the largest contributor to our human footprint. In that sense, sustainability has always been inherent to our business. The recent focus on energy efficiency is driving us further in this direction. We are looking at ways to make both our operations and products greener, and ways in which our products can create more sustainable environments. We now produce our glass products with 90 percent less energy than 50 years ago. In the case of our insulation products, we produce materials that, once installed, recoup their own energy production footprint in less than four weeks.

HK: To what extent are real estate developers, homeowners and contractors driving the demand for green building materials and energy efficiency?

In the new construction market, which is coming off of a terrible three-year downturn, we do see 'aspirational' customers. For these customers, footprint issues are paramount. However, for most of the new construction market, building codes define the required levels of insulation and energy efficiency. Those codes have been creeping up through time as municipalities and states adopt more stringent standards. Each year, buildings are a bit more energy efficient than those built in years prior.

We like to point out that with known technology, the developed world could actually improve the energy efficiency of new construction by as much as 30 to 50 percent cost-effectively. From a policy point of view, the 'just-go-do' is to dramatically ratchet up the efficiency standards for building codes. This would engage known science and demonstrated technology for immediate and substantial energy savings.

HK: What is your experience in working with policy makers and your policy strategy going forward?

MT: We have generally found that policy makers recognize that energy efficiency in construction is a good idea. I see consensus around a policy that allows the United States to control its energy future and an understanding that energy efficient building is key to that approach. That said, it's easier to advocate for doing more of the same than it is to advocate for doing something radical and new. We'd love to see more focus on what can we do right now. When we lobby, that has been and will be our focus.

HK: Given your focus on efficiency, is most of your sustainability effort related to your insulation business, or are you working across your three main franchises – composites, roofing and insulation?

MT: We are really focused on all three. Owens Corning has aggressive goals around energy efficiency. By 2010, we'll have improved the energy intensity of our operations by 20 percent. In terms of product, insulation and composites provide the most direct opportunity to advance efficiency in the global economy. In composites, we make cars lighter weight and stronger, and therefore, get better fuel economy. Even in roofing, we look for ways to reduce material content and still deliver product performance.

HK: Tell us about which product innovations have the greatest promise.

MT: There are two. One is our high strength glass – a result of innovations in both glass chemistry and glass form. This glass technology enables wind blade designers to build longer and lighter wind blades. These yield two benefits: (1) more effective production of energy in the wind corridors that are being developed, and (2) more economical wind capture in regions where the wind resource isn't quite as good.

A second innovation has to do with our insulation business. We are finding ways to make our insulation products more sustainable. We recently completed a re-work of our blowing agent chemistry to reduce the environmental footprint of the insulation production process.

HK: As Owens Corning supplies innovations in wind energy, solar shingles and higher tech, greener insulation, it appears the company is starting to shift from the traditional insulation business to a clean tech materials business.

MT: "Clean tech" does describe how we approach the world of sustainability and energy efficiency. We look at the full lifecycle of the carbon footprint our products create, the resources required to produce the product and the resources that product saves through its lifetime. In our view, that's a clean tech approach.

HK: Given this lifecycle emphasis, how much does recycling come into play, especially with your insulation products?

MT: Recycling is huge for us. Today, we purchase and recycle a billion pounds of glass – ranging from post-industrial glass to curbside consumer containers. Some customers wonder "Does anything good ever happen with these soda and beer bottles I put in my curbside recycling?" The answer is that they get shipped to Owens Corning. We re-melt them to produce fiberglass that then insulates someone's attic for the next 80 years.

HK: So then, continue that lifecycle. Once you've created the insulation in our homes, and we've got a home that's getting remodeled or demolished, is it feasible to collect that fiberglass insulation and recycle that?

MT: At present, no, but that's an area we're looking into. We believe that there's useful value in the end life of products – especially insulation and roofing -- that could be recycled and remanufactured. We'd like to pursue this cradle-to-cradle approach. That is where we see our lifecycle strategy taking us in the future.

Heather King is a producer, writer, strategist and executive-in-residence. Her primary focus is on clean technology, corporate sustainability, and new media. She writes the "View from the C-Suite" column for GreenBiz.com.