Strategies for change - 2. 3M and Xerox

Posted: 18 July 2001

Author: Charlie Pye-Smith

A tale of two companies There is a better than even chance that if you have a photocopier in your office it will have been made by Xerox Ltd. And you will undoubtedly have some products ­ post-its, floppy disks, mouse pads ­ made by another multinational company, 3M. These two companies are widely recognised as being at the forefront of the movement to green industry from within. Charlie Pye-Smith reports.

3M's 'Pollution Prevention Pays' programme dates from 1975, although it hid its light under a bushel for many years. "Industry was always being attacked by environmentalists and we used to be very defensive," recalls Richard Smith, the company's health and safety manager. "We were very wary of speaking to journalists." All this changed around 1990, following a positive review by a specialist environmental magazine. "We've now come out of our shell," says Smith.

3M's environmental policies are undoubtedly reaping financial dividends, and it claims to have saved over $800 million ­ and prevented 771,000 tonnes of pollutants from entering the environment ­ since 1975. 3M's pollution reduction programmes vary from the relatively simple to the technologically complex.

A classic example of the latter involved the redesign of spraying booths. These used to generate some 500,000 pounds of over-spray a year, and this had to be incinerated. The amount of residue has now been dramatically reduced and has helped 3M save around £125,000 a year. Since 1993, 3M has cut its volatile organic emissions by 75 per cent and its waste generation by a quarter. Just as significantly, it has reduced the amount of energy it uses per unit of production by 15 per cent.

Recycling programme

Xerox has a similarly long-standing commitment to eco-efficiency, and has set itself the ambitious goal of producing waste-free products for 'waste-free' offices. Xerox logo© XeroxAt its Mitcheldean plant in the Forest of Dean, England, 27,500 old carcasses ­ spent machines ­ are broken down each year into their constituent parts. Virtually every bit is either reused in new machines or recycled in one form or another. When I visited the factory, the manager of the recycling division was much put out by the fact that he was having difficulty disposing of certain plastic panels. Not that there was any question of throwing them away. Instead, Xerox was paying for them to be taken away and recycled by another company. Xerox's asset management programme has significantly reduced its consumption of raw materials, saving its some £50 million since 1996. Its landfill requirements have been reduced by three-quarters since 1993 and over 90 per cent of its waste is now recycled.

As far as Xerox and 3M are concerned, good environment practice makes good business sense, and this is a point of view which they try to instil in their suppliers. Both companies have also involved their workers in their war on waste and their quest for greater efficiency. 3M has encouraged its employees to participate in its pollution reduction programmes, and Xerox provides financial bonuses which ensure that its service engineers return old machines for recycling.

Charlie Pye-Smith is a freelance journalist with a special interest in environment and development issues.