The Science of Sustainability
There is no single path to corporate sustainability. Two multinational companies, Mars and Pfizer, illustrate two very different approaches to going green.
By Charles Q. Choi, July 13, 2017
Doing well by doing good is a modern mantra. If it becomes action instead of just words, it’s a key pathway to merging profit and sustainability in a company. Two of the world’s top companies — Mars, one of the world’s largest food companies (McLean, VA), and the Pfizer pharmaceutical company (New York, NY) — invest deeply in this concept, and it’s working.
Mars began making candy in 1911, and now it’s not only the top confectionery company in the world but also a major food corporation, with annual revenues of $33 billion. Mars employs 75,000 employees in more than 80 nations. Through practices on its farms and factories, Mars aims to dramatically reduce its environmental footprint. “Climate change, water scarcity and deforestation are serious threats to society,” says Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars. “It is imperative that global businesses, like Mars, do their part to face down those threats.”
Leaders at Pfizer agree. Tom Polton, senior director of product stewardship and environmental sustainability at Pfizer, says that his company views sustainable development “as part of our commitment to human health.”
These large and profitable companies are transforming their operations for the good of the planet and their profits.
Renewing the energy options
Of the many different ways to measure the impact of sustainability, one of the most universal is carbon contribution. “Having a low carbon footprint will not only be good for the planet, but good for us,” says Parkin. “At some point, there needs to be a price on carbon in order to motivate everyone around the world to drive down carbon emissions, so we want to be ready for that, to have a competitive advantage when that day comes.”
Early in their transformations, Mars and Pfizer set ambitious carbon-reduction targets. For example, Mars aimed to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% between 2007 and 2015, which it did. One core strategy to achieve such goals was to integrate renewable energy into operations.
In 2015, for instance, Mars partnered with Sumitomo Corporation of Americas to open the Mesquite Creek Wind Farm in Lamesa, Texas. The 118-turbine, 200-megawatt wind farm is spread over 25,000 acres, an area about the size of Paris, and with an annual output of more than 800,000 megawatt-hours, it generates 100% of the electricity demands of Mars’ U.S. operations — enough energy to power 61,000 average U.S. households or make 13 billion Snickers bars.
In addition, in 2016, in partnership with renewable energy firm Eneco UK, Mars opened a 20-turbine, 60-megawatt wind farm in Moy, Scotland. The facility generates more than 125,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to power all of Mars’ sites in the UK, or 34,000 average UK households. Furthermore, Mars aims to open a new wind farm in Mexico in 2017 that will generate enough electricity to power its five plants in the country, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by an equivalent of more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide. By 2020, Mars also plans to implement renewable energy projects in China, India and Australia.
Wind energy is not the only renewable source Mars is exploring. For instance, its site in Henderson, Nevada, installed a 4.4-acre solar garden that generates 1.25 million kilowatt-hours of energy per year, supporting 100% of the site’s electricity needs on sunny days and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by the equivalent of 867 tons of carbon dioxide per year. In addition, Mars Petcare in Bokros, Hungary, uses local thermal springs as a renewable energy source of heating and hot water, cutting natural gas use by 80%.
Similarly, by 2016, Pfizer reduced its greenhouse-gas emissions by about 50% since 2000, Polton states. In part, this involved installing more than 120 megawatts of cleaner energy technologies. For instance, a 2-megawatt wind turbine at Pfizer’s facility in Puurs, Belgium, feeds roughly 10% of the site’s electrical load; solar panels installed at three sites in Italy reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 1,340 tons annually; and a biomass boiler project in Pfizer’s site in Sanford, North Carolina, generates electricity via steam, reducing the site’s total carbon-dioxide emissions by about 22%.
Upping the efficiency
Beyond the integration of renewables, both Mars and Pfizer have been examining other ways to reduce impact. For instance, the Pfizer Development Center in Ringaskiddy, Ireland, developed a two-step process for manufacturing its anti-fungal drug Voriconazole, replacing a six-step process, Polton notes.
This new process requires less equipment, shrinking the overall carbon footprint by roughly 35%, Polton adds. It also reduced the ratio of waste to final product by 60%, and lowered the cost of making the drug by 30%.
Pfizer is also building more efficient facilities, such as a new manufacturing plant in Suzhou, China, which broke ground in 2015. To minimize energy consumption, the plant will be fitted with high-efficiency manufacturing equipment, as well as LED and solar-powered lighting equipped with automatic controls. In addition, “it will employ technologies to recycle waste heating and cooling, and will make extensive use of natural lighting and shading,” Polton says. “To conserve water, the plant will use high-efficiency equipment and fixtures, recycle treated wastewater for its cooling tower and for toilets, and capture rainwater for irrigation of its lawn and landscaping.”
Mars too has been examining operations in its nearly 140 factories around the world, making them more efficient, Parkin says. For instance, at Mars Drinks in Basingstoke, England, switching off lights in unoccupied areas, and other efforts saved about 52,000 kilowatt-hours annually, and Mars subsidiary Wrigley India in Baddi saved more than 25,000 kilowatt-hours a year by installing temperature- and motion-sensitive air conditioning and lighting, respectively. “We’re also replacing old, inefficient equipment,” Parkin notes.
Although Mars reduced water use by nearly 17% by 2015, it fell short of its goal of 25%. “We had set a fairly crude target, and we made a good dent in that, but we didn’t get all the way there,” Parkin states.
“The challenge is that water is cheap, so it’s hard to come up with projects that give you the payback that you like. Going forward, we’ve set more sophisticated targets, focusing on places where there are chronic water shortages, such as the Middle East and parts of Australia.” He adds, “We’ve aimed for another 15% reduction in water use by 2020, a lot of which is based on recycling water in closed loops — for instance, instead of just letting warm water flow out of the factory, we can reuse it to warm something.”
Applying advanced technologies to farming can also improve efficiency. In 2008, Mars helped IBM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture sequence the cocoa genome, and they released their findings into the public domain to help scientists around the world conduct further research to improve the crop.
“Cocoa has not really progressed in terms of farm productivity in the way most other crops have — the yield today is about a half-ton per hectare, which is pretty much the same as it was 100 years ago,” Parkin says. “So, there’s a huge opportunity to improve cocoa productivity and make it more efficient and sustainable, to train farmers in the best agronomic practices, and to help them adopt new varieties of cocoa. We’ve shown in the field that yields of 1.5 tons or more per hectare are eminently possible.”
“A lot of work on breeding higher-productivity cocoa plants was traditionally hit and miss,” Parkin explains. “By sequencing the cocoa genome, we’re identifying the genetic markers behind the things we need, such as good flavor, high productivity and good disease resistance. Increased productivity means less land is needed to grow cocoa, which reduces the likelihood of deforestation in cocoa-growing regions.”
Other companies could take similar approaches — from renewable energy to gene sequencing — to become more efficient. Even for Mars and Pfizer, however, the journey is just beginning. As Polton states, “The low-hanging goals have been realized.”
Next, he says, “Our teams have to become even more innovative.”
This article was created for SC Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.