Soy Seats In New Cars: Are Companies Doing Enough For Environment? Corporate sustainability reports help measure firms' ecological footprints. Ford, for example, touts renewable materials in its cars. But some environmentalists say the reports can be misleading.
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Soy Seats In New Cars: Are Companies Doing Enough For Environment?

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Soy Seats In New Cars: Are Companies Doing Enough For Environment?

Soy Seats In New Cars: Are Companies Doing Enough For Environment?

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There's a split among environmental leaders about so-called sustainability reports. This is information that companies make public about how they're improving their ecological footprints. NPR's Jason Margolis reports on whether these reports are a positive trend or just window dressing.

JASON MARGOLIS, BYLINE: This is a story about colors, or rather shades of a color. Andrew Hoffman at the University of Michigan breaks environmentalists into two camps - first, the dark greens...

ANDREW HOFFMAN: Business is the enemy because they just want to make money, and they don't care about the environment.

MARGOLIS: ...Then, the bright-green person.

HOFFMAN: So the bright-green looks at business as an ally, looks at the market as the solution. Business is the power. So if we're going to solve the problems we face, it has to come through business.

MARGOLIS: Hoffman is in this camp. He splits his time between the University of Michigan's Business School and School of National Resources. He teaches sustainability in business. And we're not just talking about Patagonia and Tom's of Maine. He tracks what big multinationals are doing.

HOFFMAN: Dow is doing some really interesting things on valuing ecosystem services, partnering with the Nature Conservancy. Coca-Cola, for all its problems, is doing a lot of work to start to look at water issues.

MARGOLIS: And just down the road, Hoffman points to Ford Motor Company. The automaker is using more renewable materials in its manufacturing process. At its assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., workers quickly install backseats in sedans. In the past, the padding in these seats was made mostly from petroleum-based compounds. Ford's Aaron Miller says now they're mad partly from plants, specifically soy.

AARON MILLER: You can see here on the bottom the soy material. And if you feel it, it's very structured, very rigid. So when we use it in our seats, it meets the same safety standards, but now we're using more environmentally friendly materials.

MARGOLIS: Let's work backwards. Before they were soy seats in a factory, they were soybeans in the lab. Chemical engineer Debbie Mielewski, who heads Ford's plastics a sustainable resource division, points to some misshapen, deformed soy foams.

DEBBIE MIELEWSKI: Stinky, flat, something that nobody really wanted in their car or would be interested in sitting on.

MARGOLIS: Eventually, her team got the formula exactly right.

MIELEWSKI: We're utilizing about 31,251 soybeans in every vehicle. But toward the future, we'd like to even put more bio-based content in the foams.

MARGOLIS: Mielewski still has to include some petroleum compounds to make her foam. She'd like to eliminate that entirely with something like algae to further reduce the company's carbon emissions. Let's take another step back to Ford's corporate offices. Before chemists can run years of tests, they first need approval from people like John Viera, Ford's global director of sustainability. I asked him if Ford would use biomaterials that cost the company a little more.

JOHN VIERA: No, we wouldn't. And I say that we wouldn't because we just really believe there are more than enough opportunities to find applications that are good for business and good for the environment.

MARGOLIS: Ford has won several prominent environmental awards for its work with biomaterials and for reducing energy use and waste at its factories. All this looks good in the company's sustainability report, but not everyone is impressed. John Ehrenfeld is a retired faculty member from MIT who studies business and the environment. He says the very idea of a corporate sustainability report is flawed.

JOHN EHRENFELD: I think companies just don't get it. Almost all things that show up in sustainability plans are one form of Band-Aid - trying to do less bad.

MARGOLIS: Ehrenfeld doesn't think companies like Ford are trying to mislead us, but...

EHRENFELD: I just think that if they're fooling anybody, they're fooling themselves about the nature of the problem and the effectiveness of their solution.

MARGOLIS: He says if Ford was really serious about tackling issues like global warming, it would invest in things like public transportation. Ford's leaders don't entirely disagree. John Viera says Ford wants to become a mobility solutions leader moving goods and people around in increasingly congested places and not just by selling more cars and trucks. For that to work though, the company or any for-profit company has to make sure it can make money doing it. Jason Margolis, NPR News.

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