Moving mountains for Earth's sake at Caterpillar

This week I spoke with Tim Lindsey, Global Director of Sustainable Development at Caterpillar. We discussed his career path, the culture of sustainability at Caterpillar, the company’s relationship with customers and suppliers, its remanufacturing division, its partnerships with Waste Management and the World Resources Institute and more.

As is commonly the case with sustainability leaders, the story of how they arrived at their current job frequently proves interesting. In Lindsey’s case, he started by working for a construction firm that cleaned up toxic Superfund sites. The conditions were so bad at one job in particular that he and his colleagues donned protective gear to do the job. It was when he was getting sick into his mask that he realized he was at the wrong end of the problem. He began focusing on the role of technologies to solve environmental problems and pollution prevention in general. A little over a year ago, he jumped on board at Caterpillar.

The main reason Lindsey made the change to Caterpillar was because of its strong sustainability strategy. The company has been putting out a sustainability report since 2005 and has been named to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for 12 years running, but more significant to Lindsey was the company’s strong sustainability culture. Now it is his job to formalize the principles of sustainability and take thing up a notch or two.

Lindsey’s team is small. Currently, they are three people, responsible for supply-chain issues, some manufacturing, Cat’s dealership network, as well as helping customers — the source of the company’s biggest environmental footprint — with sustainability issues. It’s a lot of responsibility for a small team, but Lindsey thinks that’s how it should be.

“It is not appropriate to have a huge sustainability department,” he says. “More can be accomplished having a culture of sustainability. It’s a lot like quality and safety too. Everyone is responsible. I want to move sustainability forward to that point. We are not there yet but a couple of years down the road we will be.”

Where the company is ahead of the pack is in its mentoring relationship with customers. As Lindsey points out, Caterpillar has had some strong technology breakthroughs in the last few years that have helped customers. In addition, Caterpillar has a “job sites solution program” that is popular at quarries and mining operations. Lindsey and his colleagues assist, for example, in training operators and rebuilding engines and, in doing so, help improve fuel efficiency of operations tend by 30 percent. Lindsey feels this type of value-added customer relationship is the future.

Re-manufatcturing is also a big part of Caterpillar’s business — something it has been doing for 40 years. By remanufacturing products, the company is able to preserve 85 percent of the embedded energy that goes into making products and extend their lives.  Last year manufacturing allowed Cat to save 170 million pounds of materials and 400 million kilowatt-hours of electricity while avoiding 180 million pounds of greenhouse gases.

Caterpillar is not going it alone in the sustainability world. The company has a solid partnership with Waste Management, where 73 power plants across the country are powered by Caterpillar equipment primarily using biofuels. And recently Caterpillar teamed up with the World Resources Institute on a four-year plan to create global sustainable cities.

There are a few projects coming down the pike that Lindsey couldn’t divulge. But as he pointed out, “If the company can tell you all that they are doing with sustainability they are probably not doing much.” That’s certainly the case here.