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GEMI: Successes, Current Challenges, and Future Trends

Members of the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI) gathered recently in Washington, D.C. to highlight the organization's 15 years of leadership in environmental, health, and safety management. GreenBiz correspondent Karen Rowan offers this report.

Over 125 members and guests gathered in Washington, D.C., on April 13, 2005, for a daylong event celebrating 15 years of GEMI leadership. The theme of this year's conference -- "GEMI: Successes, Current Challenges, and Future Trends" -- struck notes of historical continuity, stressing the continued relevance of GEMI's core values and commitments as members work to address emerging and future challenges in environmental, health, and safety management.

Conference participants were joined by keynote speakers Lee Thomas, President and COO, Georgia-Pacific Corporation and Former U.S. EPA Administrator; William Reilly, Aqua International and Former U.S. EPA Administrator; and William McDonough, Principle, William McDonough + Partners. Thomas, head of GEMI's first management team, traced the organization's beginnings while Reilly and McDonough turned their attention to how the private sector can and is providing innovative leadership in integrating economic and environmental interests.

GEMI Past and Present

Thomas attributed GEMI's genesis to a group of committed environmental professionals who saw the opportunity for business to respond to pressures by advocacy and government groups by charting its own course. GEMI founders worked together to establish its own principles for how businesses can move beyond compliance and towards continuous environmental improvement. Thomas urged GEMI members not to deviate from its original mission as a mutual-help organization seeking "to improve environmental, health and safety performance, shareholder value and corporate citizenship." In closing, he reminded participants of GEMI member companies' "true global leadership potential."

Also looking back to the past, members of the GEMI Founders Panel recounted how the fledgling organization drew on unique talents and experiences of members in a range of industries to develop a model that produces practical, broadly applicable tools. Each of the panelists -- George Carpenter, The Procter & Gamble Company; Susan Moore, Georgia-Pacific Corporation; Dorothy Bowers, Merck & Company (retired); Bill Sugar, Anheuser-Busch Inc (retired); and Charles Goodman, Southern Company -- played an integral role in GEMI's formation and early successes. As a group, the panelists stressed that the diversity in GEMI's membership served, and continues to serve, GEMI well in terms of being able to develop innovative tools and publications that support businesses from a range of industries.

The "GEMI: Present and Future" panelists went on to describe how members have built on GEMI’s core values and applied its strategies over its 15-year history. Panel members included: Robin Tollett, Procter & Gamble, Chair, GEMI; Mitch Jackson, FedEx, Vice Chair, GEMI; Tim Mohin, Intel Corporation, Communications & Marketing Committee Chair and Co-Chair of the Conference; Stan Christian, Motorola, Tools Chair, GEMI; and Ms. Girardi Schoen. The panelists traced GEMI’s development from a focus on TQEM to its current focus on sustainability and looked forward to emerging issues that will shape GEMI’s work in the coming years. Following Thomas’ lead, the panelists stressed that though the specific issues may change, GEMI’s core structure and processes continue to serve the organization well. For example, Elizabeth Girardi Schoen, Pfizer Inc. and Chair Emeritus, GEMI, chronicled the evolution of GEMI’s tools, from print-based tools such as the "Environmental Self-Assessment Program" (1992) to interactive, Web-based tools such as "Forging New Links: Enhancing Supply Chain Value Through Environmental Excellence" (2004).

Future Focus: Water

Throughout the day, conference participants turned to future challenges, and water sustainability emerged as one of the key themes. When asked to identify upcoming challenges GEMI members should attend to, Mr. Sugar identified water supply and quality as a major environmental issue. On that note, William Reilly stressed in his luncheon keynote address that water, not biodiversity or climate change, is the dominant health issue in developing countries. Reilly went on to argue that the private sector plays a critical role in developing new solutions to water sustainability and can counteract the shortcomings of government policies by investing in innovative water and energy programs.

Both John Matthews of JohnsonDiversey Inc. and Jeff Seabright of The Coca-Cola Company argued that the global freshwater crisis is a critical issue both in terms of businesses’ environmental footprints and their bottom lines. Matthews noted that 20% of the world’s population does not have access to clean water and that, in the U.S., ground water use has increased 14% from 1985 to 2000. Seabright cited the Coca-Cola Company’s SEC 10-K Report (2004), which highlighted the importance of water to the company’s products and alluded to Coca-Cola’s responsibility to carefully manage water resources: "Water is the main ingredient in every product…and is also a limited natural resource facing unprecedented challenges from over-exploitation, increasing pollution and poor management."

As Reilly noted, GEMI members are pioneering comprehensive and cost-effective approaches to the global freshwater shortage. For example, George Carpenter described Procter & Gamble’s innovative partnership with Population Services International, a global NGO, to introduce PUR Water Filtration System products to developing countries such as Haiti, Uganda, and Pakistan. Not only does the partnership exemplify how business can contribute to achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, it serves Procter & Gamble’s interests by reducing the cost of introducing new products to developing countries.

Jeff Seabright described how Coca-Cola used the GEMI Water Sustainability Tool to develop both global and plant-level assessments of water risk in its operations. In its efforts to become a global corporate leader in water stewardship, Coca-Cola has published a Water Risk Assessment Report and has eliminated $80 million in water costs as the result of its efforts.

Vision for the Future

The conference concluded with William McDonough’s visionary presentation outlining a "strategy of hope" that implements eco-effective design to create products that do not harm users or the environment and therefore do not require regulation. McDonough highlighted China’s efforts to create a circular economy using cradle-to-cradle design strategies, in which biological and technical materials are used in closed cycles, as an example of resource-effective (as opposed to resource-efficient) design. Such design, McDonough contends, benefits the environment, the people who use the products, and the bottom lines of businesses themselves.

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