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An inconvenient truth: GM cares about the environment: although some people might think that GM is about plundering and polluting the planet, the corporation has long been committed to owning up to its corporate responsibility--which includes working toward Sustainability Mobility.

Despite the fact that there are those like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who seems convinced that General Motors isn't a very good corporate citizen, that it is an organization that cares solely about its own benefit, that's not the case. The company has, for a number of years, been concerned with the health and well being of not only its own existence, but that of the planet. When asked about how GM defines "sustainable development," Terry Cullem, GM director of Corporate Responsibility & Environment and Energy, responds, "We pretty much go with the Brundtland Commission's answer. It is a very simple definition in terms of looking at the economic, social and environmental aspects, making sure that we consider those three elements as we make business decisions."

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The Brundtland Commission? Well, it turns out that in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which was established by the United Nations in 1983, released a report titled "Our Common Future." This report states "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The chairwoman of the commission, Gro Harlem Brundtland, had her name attached to that report and to the commission.

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SUSTAINABLE & SAFE. Then there is the Sustainable Mobility project conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). "We were one of the companies that helped conceive the idea and get it off the ground," Cullem says. The WBCSD released a report that provided a state-of-the-industry look at global personal transportation in 2001, in which there are a number of "grand challenges" enumerated, that take into account factors including capacity, performance, emissions, fuel use, and materials. This was followed by another report in 2004 that took the year 2030 as a point in the future, then tried to anticipate just what the problems vis-a-vis personal mobility would be then. This revealed that one big problem is safety--the World Health Organization projects that by 2020 as many as two million people per year losing their lives due to motor vehicle-related accidents, so GM and six other WBCSD Sustainable Mobility member companies have established the "Global Road Safety Initiative" to find the ways and means to address this problem.

What becomes clear is that "sustainable product development" is not just about doing things that are environmentally oriented, although that is a part of it. "If you look at the environmental area," Cullem says, "we've made a number of positive strides. We set aggressive goals for our facilities for energy, water and waste reduction and we have very impressive performance in those areas over the last decade. We set public targets for energy reduction, waste reduction and water reduction and we've been able to drive to those goals and exceed those goals. We've been doing it in five-year increments, where we set the goal and then we drive the behaviors to achieving the goals. These are integrated into our business plans, they're part of what we call our 'Manufacturing Scorecard.' Again, what gets measured gets moved. We've made impressive gains." For example, according to the GM 2005 Corporate Responsibility Report, the corporation has reduced global greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% since 2000, which is not only better than the 8% that had been the goal, but achieved one year earlier. The goal for water usage reduction was 10%; they reduced water use by 23.3%.

"From a product standpoint, if you look at the life cycle of the vehicle, we've begun looking at the complete life cycle, not just during the manufacturing phase, but we've taken a look at applying life cycle thinking into the design, manufacture, use and end of life of our vehicles. We were the first auto manufacturer to make dismantling manuals available on a website."

THE FUTURE MATTERS. One might imagine, however, that in a business environment where GM (like other manufacturers) is struggling for its very existence now, not at some distant time in the future, it might be that sustainability is something that would get not even a polite nod. But Cullem says that GM is not retreating from its commitment. He cites, for example, the on-going work and investment in the development of hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles. "We've continued to focus, even in tough economic times, continuing to fund our development at the rate we think we need to bring production vehicles to the marketplace." More to the point, he says that the economic pressures are causing them to "think we need to get there sooner rather than later."

Cullem points out that when people are promoted to the executive level within GM they undergo a week-long training session that provides a look into the various organizations within the corporation. One module is devoted to sustainability. "We have found--surprisingly--that almost all of them [the new executives] have worked with it for a while. We feel pretty successful in terms of getting the word out and getting people to think that way as they conduct their normal business."

He puts it in a simple context: "The concept of sustainability means you're moving forward in a way that will make sure you're around tomorrow."

By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief
COPYRIGHT 2006 Gardner Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:The INDuSTRY; General Motors Corp.
Author:Vasilash, Gary S.
Publication:Automotive Design & Production
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2006
Words:874
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