August 11, 2011

6 Min Read
Case Study: Sony Plugs Into Sustainability

It’s been a year since Sony Corporation announced its “Road to Zero” global environmental plan, which includes a long-term goal of achieving a zero environmental footprint by 2050. With incremental goals set for every five years, the company hopes to eventually reach its target of negating its environmental impact throughout product life cycles, from development to procurement, manufacturing, distribution and recycling.

Setting the formidable goal of zero waste was par for the course for a company like Sony. Known for its technological ingenuity, Sony is applying the same creativity to meet the challenge of eliminating waste across the company, says Keiko Yokoyama, environmental director of the human resources division for Sony Electronics Inc.

“For a sustainable society, Sony is equally committed to address the needs of local communities through product and technologies, leveraging the strength of employees and pursuing partnerships with stakeholders,” says Yokoyama.

A Guiding Plan

Sony’s Road to Zero initiative is a comprehensive plan that guides the company’s broad range of sustainability efforts. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas and wastes from its manufacturing operations, Sony is also committed to developing sustainable technologies and products.

Through Road to Zero, Sony aims to reduce environmental impact from all of its business operations. The company is focused on four key environmental perspectives:

1) Climate change

2) Natural resource conservation

3) Management of chemical substances

4) Protection of ecological biodiversity

“We know that our products impact these perspectives throughout their life-cycle,” says Yokoyama. “That’s why Sony has identified six stages in the product life-cycle that are cornerstones in assessing Sony’s environmental footprint.” Those six stages include:

1) Research and development

2) Product planning and design

3) Procurement

4) Manufacturing and site operations

5) Distribution

6) Take-back recycling

Sony has established goals for each stage of the life cycle to address the four environmental perspectives and to reduce the environmental impact associated with each one.

In casting a wide net to consider environmental impact at every stage of a product’s life cycle, Sony’s sustainability program is far-reaching. For instance, the company is working to develop sustainable technologies and products such as dye-sensitized solar cell technology and mercury-free batteries. All Sony PCs are registered with the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT), a green electronics procurement program. And the company’s take-back recycling initiative helps customers to responsibly recycle Sony products at the end of their useful life.

Instead of setting initial targets based on past performance, Sony began by defining its ultimate goal, Yokoyama says. Then the company used “back-casting” methods to set specific mid-term environmental targets in pursuit of its long-term goal. For instance, by 2015, Sony plans to have implemented a number of mid-term targets, including a 30 percent reduction in annual energy consumption by its products, a 10 percent reduction in product mass, a 50 percent absolute reduction in waste generation and a 30 percent absolute reduction in water consumption. Once those goals are reached, new targets will be set for 2020.

To track its sustainability progress, Sony uses the ISO 14001 certification system that covers its entire global operation. Under the program, all sites report environmental data, such as recycling volumes, to the central database. In addition to internal tracking, that data is reviewed periodically in third party verification audits. The results of these audits are disclosed on Sony’s website and in its Corporate Social Responsibility report. In addition, the company develops an environmental business plan each year “to drive continuous improvements and to make environmental initiatives an integral part of the business,” says Yokoyama.

The Waste Industry on the Road to Zero

Sony’s definition of a zero environmental footprint extends beyond the neutralization of carbon emissions to the handling of solid waste and use of finite materials such as oil-derived virgin plastics. For that reason, Sony’s initiative, like similar ones announced by other companies, should pique the interest of solid waste professionals. Rather than cutting the waste industry out of the loop, Sony’s initiative actually requires an enhanced partnership with the solid waste industry.

At Sony sites, waste reduction and recycling are viewed as key performance indicators. “We are continuously investigating new ways to improve and increase recycling while reducing waste, [in order to reach our] goal to achieve a 99 percent recycling rate by the end of our fiscal year 2015,” says Yokoyama.

The company also is committed to ensuring that its products will be responsibly recycled when they reach the end of their life cycles. To that end, Sony offers various recycling opportunities to consumers, Yokoyama says. Recently, for instance, Sony signed a voluntary commitment with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to promote responsible recycling by using third party recyclers.

To ensure that waste reduction and recycling initiatives are fully implemented, Sony conducts audits of its waste handlers as a part of the company’s due diligence process. The company provides waste handlers with a set of requirements for responsible recycling and frequently uses certified third-party recyclers to ensure e-waste is properly processed.

During the past several years, “companies and cities announcing zero waste goals have become commonplace,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Environmental Industry Associations. “The zero waste consciousness, which began as somewhat of a fringe movement, is now mainstream and it has become synonymous with ‘sustainability.’ It may sound counterintuitive and surprising to some, but the solid waste industry supports zero waste efforts and continues to develop the technology that supports this goal. For us, zero waste means treating waste as a resource that has a commercial value.”

According to Parker, zero waste initiatives like Sony’s are having a significant impact on society, as well as on the waste industry. For instance, in 2009, Americans produced 12 million tons less of municipal solid waste than they did in 2008, according to EPA. And during the past decade, waste generation declined by almost 8 percent, largely due to “lightweighting” (manufacturing companies reducing packaging weight and size). The Internet and electronic communications have reduced paper generation by 21 million tons since 2001, Parker says.

The impact on the solid waste industry, on the other hand, “has not been so much on reduced disposal volumes as it has been in creating awareness,” Parker says. Thanks to zero waste programs, professionals in the solid waste industry now understand that they “need to begin thinking about how [they] can adapt [their] business models to the long term changes that will result from zero waste goals being realized,” he says. 

Even with zero waste programs in full force, there will still be “a lot of waste to manage” for the next 10 to 15 years, says Parker. But when it comes to long-term planning, the industry needs to realize that changes are inevitable.

Parker cites Waste Management President and CEO David Steiner, who said, “When your company is named Waste Management and your customers want zero waste, you better change your business model.” Accordingly, Waste Management has made investments in technologies to convert waste into clean, renewable energy; chemicals for use in industrial manufacturing; and plastics that make recycling easier and more efficient.

While Waste Management seems to be ahead of the competition, other waste services companies also are “looking at new and emerging conversion technologies and doing strategic thinking in response to moving toward a materials management role rather than a disposal role,” Parker says. “This will require a focus on upstream management of residual waste materials.”

As Sony travels down its “road to zero,” it isn’t just affecting customers by creating innovative products with better environmental performance. The company also is making an impact on the solid waste industry, challenging industry professionals to rethink their own goals and services, and helping them move toward a more sustainable future.

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Huntsville, Ala.-based writer.

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