Companies Work to Keep Emissions Low After the Recession

Companies Work to Keep Emissions Low After the Recession

Image courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers

Years ago, 3M set a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 30 percent between 2002 and 2007, based on its revenue. It blew that goal away, slashing emissions by 60 percent.

It then vowed to cut its absolute global carbon footprint 5 percent between 2006 and 2011. It blew this goal away, too, years ahead of schedule. By 2008, its emissions had fallen 16 percent.

The economic downturn and a rise in energy costs were contributing factors, said Keith Miller, 3M's manager of environmental initiatives and sustainability.

"One of the tough things is as the economy picks up, we will continue to grow so that will potentially be an issue," Miller explained. "We hope we can maintain the 16 percent (reduction) level, but that will be a challenge.”

The company more than maintained it: 3M revealed last month its global carbon footprint shrunk 52 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Since last fall, I've asked a number of companies how the economic recession has impacted their emissions reduction goals. A common theme emerged: The downturn has helped many companies reach their climate goals faster, but the hard part will be holding the line on emissions once business activity picks up.

"The recession forces all companies to look for ways to optimize and save dollars and focus on the cost containment benefits of carbon emissions -- reduction in travel costs, reduction in energy costs based on relatively small financial investments, and a reduction in waste, amongst others," Shannon Schuyler, PricewaterhouseCoopers' (PwC) corporate responsibility leader, wrote in an email. "As the economy begins to show signs of recovery, the concern is that organizations will regress to old practices like excessive travel and increasing energy usage and waste production as resources feel more plentiful."  

That’s why Schuyler, Miller, and other sustainability executives have been working to give their environmental initiatives a "stickiness" in order to keep emissions declining even as business increases. They are implementing new travel policies and adopting more environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, while also turning to their employees for help. Their efforts are already bearing fruit, with some even seeing signs that they are successfully decoupling emissions from business growth.

Here is a look at how they and other leading companies are laying the groundwork for lower emissions in a boom economy, as much as in a busted one.


Autodesk's carbon footprint grew 1 percent between fiscal years 2008 and 2009 before declining significantly a year later.

In late 2009, the company devised a new formula to set its greenhouse gas targets based on its carbon intensity, contribution to Gross Domestic Product and scientific recommendations.

The new model, dubbed C-FACT, showed the company it needed to reduce emissions 4.52 percent between FY 2009 and 2010, in order to align the company's performance with the goal of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, as recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

I asked Emma Stewart, who leads Autodesk's sustainability program, how the company would meet this goal when emissions actually rose the year before.

"This year, we have taken a number of steps that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions," she said, pointing to the company's significant investment in virtual collaboration tools.

Travel was the largest piece of the company's carbon footprint in FY 2008 and 2009. To determine where virtual collaboration tools would be most effective, the company identified city pairs, where there is frequent travel between two destinations, such as Boston and Autodesk's Bay Area headquarters. The company installed more than a dozen Cisco Telepresence systems and more than 50 Microsoft videoconferencing systems in the most heavily-trafficked locations, all of which contributed to a 44 percent reduction in travel emissions.

Energy retrofits, improved employee commuting patterns, and virtual events also combined to shave the company's total emissions by 33 percent in FY 2010. Revenues declined during the same time period by 26 percent, showing the company has managed to improve its carbon efficiency during the downturn.


The company's energy management, including energy teams at all plants, run more than 300 energy projects every year. The company estimates it has saved $100 million since 2005 from more than 3,300 employee-inspired projects worldwide.

In addition to reducing energy consumption, the company has steadily worked to change its change the way it makes it products to reduce environmental impacts. In some cases, moving from solvent-based processes to those that are solvent-free or water-based led to a drop in air emissions. This in turn alleviated the need to control those air emissions with energy-hungry thermal oxidizers.

Reformulating coating methods and modifying equipment were some of the ways 3M's facility in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, slashed levels of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions. The deep cuts in emissions meant the company no longer needed to run its pollution control system, which saves 550 tons of greenhouse gases every year.

The efforts are couched within 3M's Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) program, which ran 670 projects last year. The company estimates the projects saved 3M $88 million in 2009 and avoided nearly two million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Since 1975, more than 8,100 3P projects have saved 3M $1.37 billion in first-year savings.


SAP's long-term goal involves reducing its emissions to 2000 levels by 2020, the equivalent of halving its 2007 carbon footprint. Annually, SAP works to trim emissions by 5 percent relative to its previous year's target. The company outperformed its annual goal in 2009 by lowering its emissions by 15 percent.

Although the company acknowledges the recession impacted its performance, SAP also turned to its employees to make its operations leaner. For example, the company asked employees to avoid travel, or travel by train if needed. In response, the number of SAP flights taken in 2009 fell by 30 percent.

SAP embarked on a drive to reduce paper use by improving technology and targeting employee behavior. On the technology side, SAP initiated a global printing optimization project that changed default settings and allowed workers to monitor progress through a dashboard within an SAP portal. To drive a change in behavior, the company held events and used existing channels to communicate with employees and build awareness of the effort.

SAP's work paid off: The company reduced paper use by 25 percent in 2009, which lowered emissions by roughly 1,000 metric tonnes.

SAP also tapped its employee base to reduce energy use through an Energy Champion initiative. Employees may volunteer to become energy champions with the expectation that they will dedicate roughly 10 percent of their work time to driving energy efficiencies and cost savings.

"We calculated in the beginning that it would be great to have 100 champions," said Daniel Schmid, leader of SAP's internal sustainability program, told me. "After 56 days, we had 250."


By the end of fiscal 2008, PwC was already halfway toward its 2012 goal of reducing emissions by 20 percent, based on FY 2007 levels.

"We were surprised to see such a significant drop because the results did not take into account the recession, which has driven emissions down due to more limited travel, waste production and energy efficiency from our own facilities," Shannon Schuyler said in an email. "This is very positive because the engineered solutions that we have made appear to also have driven behavior changes which would lead to longer term actions that will be embraced in both good economic times as well as challenging times."

PwC's strategy to reduce emissions began with much of the familiar low-hanging fruit: using less paper, energy efficiency and educating employees as to why these efforts are "important for the environment, cost containment, brand and reputation," Schuyler said.

The economic downturn made it easier to reduce firm travel in favor of videoconferencing, in which it heavily invested and shows increasing adoption at the company. It also began working with the landlords of its various facilities to get more energy data. The company embarked on a series of energy audits, and even began work on a new green data center (pictured above).

Within its facilities, it began replacing all printers with dual-function counterparts and targeting its cafeterias to make eating utensils more environmentally friendly.

"We want to leverage behavior from the recession to keep our footprint low," Schuyler said. "It will be interesting to see how that evolves."

Image courtesy of PwC.