Xerox: Walking the Talk on Sustainable Business?

xgs_calkins_final.JPGCan a company that manufactures copy machines, and sells more paper than any other single brand, really walk the talk on sustainable business practices?

That question framed my response to an offer to talk with Patty Calkins, Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety at Xerox Corp. After all, don’t copy machines “[consume] vast amounts of water, paper, and energy…?” I’ve seen numerous press releases on environmental issues from the company whose name is now synonymous with “photocopying,” but I was still skeptical: isn’t this still a business model built on heavy inputs of energy and paper?

Patty and I talked on the phone last Wednesday (April 9), and, as in other situations, my reservations were addressed directly and concretely. I had forwarded a version of the above question prior to our talk, so she was ready for me. Among the company initiatives she detailed for me:

  • Xerox has a history of taking “green” steps forward early: double-sided printing functions in 1969; recycled paper products in the early ’70s; automatic power-down functions on some of its machines in the early ’80s; involvement with the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to create the ENERGY STAR standard; a “waste-free” push in the ’90s that included “our essentially inventing remanufacturing.”
  • The company had set a greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 10% (over a 2002 baseline) by 2012. It actually met that goal at the end of 2006, so it has set a new goal of 25% reduction by 2012. Patty was candid about the fact that “we really don’t know how we’re going to get there” (a claim I’ve heard from other corporate executives).
  • Xerox is the world’s largest seller of cut-sheet paper under a single brand, and started taking steps to address the sustainability of it paper supply chain in the late ’90s. Initiatives have addressed supplier practices, including chemical processing and bleaching of paper, adherence to an environmental quality standard (preferably ISO 4001), and meeting a sourcing standard for wood fiber such as Forest Stewardship Council, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Canadian Standards Association, and others. The company has recently received “Chain of Custody” certification from the FSC.
  • Finally, Xerox works with customers and clients to reduce their own environmental impact (and not just their carbon footprint, but also water and air pollution, biodiversity and forest impact, and waste creation). Recent developments on this front have included its sustainability calculator, which measures the environmental impact of upgrading to new, more efficient equipment, and “High-Yield Business Paper.”

“Walking the talk” isn’t simply a PR phrase for the company, according to Patty, but a conceptual foundation for how they do business. That “walk,” of course, isn’t simply based on altruism: the company sees real opportunities to create value through implementing sustainable business practices.

Of course, Xerox (like other large corporations) has been targeted by activist organizations directly and indirectly: Greenpeace ultimately praised the company’s decision to stop “stop using fibre from SΓ‘mi Reindeer Forests in northern Finland” in 2005 after a campaign; the Rainforest Action Network claimed (also in 2005) that Xerox supplier Weyerhaeuser’s logging practices violated “the legal, social and ecological commitments that allow them to log on public lands in the province of Saskatchewan,” despite the Canadian Standards Association’s certification of those practices as “sustainable forestry.” While that RAN campaign didn’t target Xerox directly, it did call into question the validity of CSA certification. The Saskatchewan Forest Service denied any illegal operations in the forest (though RAN claimed SFS “selectively enforces its laws…”)

Ultimately, some will judge Xerox by its response to activist campaigns. Overall, though, their approach to the sustainability of their business is based on a solid foundation : measurable goals that apply across the supply chain and lifecycles of products they sell and lease. I got the sense from Patty that the company was engaged in an ongoing learning process, and working creatively to locate (and relocate… constantly) the nexus between sustainability and value creation. Issues will come up, of course, in part because the company has publicly declared its commitment to greener practices. They’ve clearly set themselves on the path, though… and that’s worth praising.

Want to take some small steps to green your office? Browse our selection of recycled paper.

  1. Carol McClelland of Green Career Central

    One more note about Xerox sustainability practices. My husband and I have a Xerox printer for the in house printing needs of our two businesses.

    I’ve always been impressed with the ink for the printer. The crayon-like ink blocks leave very little ink waste behind and ALL of the packaging is recyclable, from the cardboard box to the plastic trays the ink blocks sit in for transit.

    I’m sure they’ll eventually find a way to cut even the recycled packaging at some point, but it’s a relief to us to know that we don’t have cartridges to deal with.

    Thanks for the great post, Jeff.

  2. MattKelly

    Great post Jeff. It is interesting to see so many companies incorporate “green” into their corporate philosophy. During the Aspen Environment Forum, GM’s Beth Lowery joined a panel of other executives to discuss the topic ‘What is a Sustainable Business?’ Auden Schendler had a really great response of what it means for Aspen Skiing Company. See my post here:

    At next week’s FORTUNE: Brainstorm Green event in Pasadena, we’ll be covering Beth paricipation in a roundtable discussion on ‘The Path to Sustainability,’ which will also include Ursula Burns, President of Xerox. We hope you’ll join the conversation!

  3. David Zetland

    Xerox can use its fame in paper to coordinate anti-deforestation efforts. Although it’s not a core business (probably better as a charity arm), Xerox has an easy way to charge more for ALL paper and then divert the additional cost to protecting forests. Although other companies may charge less (and even cut into sensitive forests), I am betting that Xerox can improve things faster than things decay (and that sales would rise faster from the good publicity). Remember that only 3% of Starbuck’s coffee is fair trade!

  4. Bobby B.

    From David Z’s comments:

    “sales would rise faster from the good publicity”

    How astute that someone picked up on the true driver of the so-called “green” business movement: PROFIT.

    “Green” is a glaring example of business opportunism. It is the reason Walmart has end-cap displays full – probably from lack of sales – of green movies. It’s the reason lead-acid battery manufacturers put those little green stickers on their plastic cases. It is the reason a big chunk of tax revenues get funneled into the production of ethanol; a fuel with less power per volumetric unit and greater smog output than gasoline. It is the reason that automobile manufacturers tinker with underpowered, overpriced and not-really-as-green-as-they-seem-on-the-surface vehicles.

    Green is one of today’s “hot” marketing ploys and to borrow a euphemism from fishing the public has swallowed the hook. Are you buying it?

  5. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Wow, Bob, you’re now taking the position of some of the eco-activists out there… interesting!

    This brings up a bigger question: does green business activity have to be primarily altruistic to “count?” I’d say “No.” Companies like Xerox and others recognize (as Patty told me, and I mentioned above) that sustainable business practices can build value. If that’s the case, we’ve got a “win-win” — and a better argument to the business community than just “doing the right thing.”

    You’ve picked a few choice examples to bolster your case, but what about the efforts I mentioned from Xerox? Are these just more ploys? In each case, I’d argue there’s solid evidence behind these efforts in terms of creating both environmental and financial value… and that’s a good thing.

    I won’t argue that there aren’t efforts out there that are merely marketing efforts… but you’re painting with a pretty big brush here…

  6. Bobby B.

    I do think that some of the eco-activists feel that their socialist agenda has been hijacked and turned upside down by capitalist opportunism. It may sound as though I have taken their position, but I really have not. I regard it a victory of sorts when capitalism supplants socialism/communism; ergo, a good thing. I also have no problem with the ends being more than altruistic. However, I would see it as disingenuous if a company or an individual “talked the green talk” absent any measurable efforts/results merely to turn a profit. The green socialists would probably take issue with any tactic that yielded a profit for anyone.

    I will concede that I was using broad brush strokes to paint a generalization, and did not intend to malign Xerox. I am sure that their efforts have measurable results.

  7. Dan

    Xerox will continue to profit from its forward environmental friendly thinking. Its late-to-the-game competitors will suffer from their reluctance to innovate.

  8. GlobalGreenQueen

    It is my belief that all businesses and corporations large or small should be held accountable for their actions, as well as ensuring a greener, cleaner environment. Two thumbs up for Xerox for being proactive and transitioning to a sustainable business. I heard of a company called Sustainable Land Development Int’l (SLDI), who team up with companies to teach them best practices such as how to reduce or prevent pollution without losing profit and promoting a green lifestyle. It’s good to know that
    there are companies such as SLDI and Xerox who care about making changes in our world, and
    inspire other organizations to do the same.

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