Getting greener without falling into the red

Companies that want to become more environmentally friendly need help implementing ideas that make environmental and economic sense in the long run.

CORONADO, Calif.--There's more than one kind of "green" in the eyes of the world's corporations.

Mark Turrell of Imaginatik and Prith Banerjee of HP Labs listen to Steve Di Biase of JohnsonDiversey (left to right) discuss sustainability at FIRe 2008. Tom Krazit/CNET News.com

More and more companies are starting to realize that they can enjoy the PR benefits of turning "green," by reducing their carbon footprint through energy savings or changes to their products. But every CEO always has another shade of green somewhere in the back of his or her mind. Companies need to reduce their impact on the environment, but that doesn't mean they can afford to implement every single green idea, or that they even know where to start, according to panelists at the Future in Review conference.

The goal should be "sustainability," or the idea that individuals and organizations should be working on ways to make sure any environmentally friendly improvements or changes they make to their businesses should be sustainable over the long term, or they shouldn't be done at all. But developing and implementing sustainable ideas is harder to accomplish in real life than it is to discuss in luxury resort hotels yards from the Pacific Ocean.

That's where "innovation software" companies like Invention Machine and Imaginatik come in. Mark Atkins, president and CEO of Invention Machine, helps manufacturing companies develop clever ways to make their products more environmentally friendly without killing their cost structure. Some of his clients are starting to realize that they'll have to overhaul as much as 70 percent of their products within the next five years to meet sustainability goals, he said.

Imaginatik CEO Mark Turrell described a project his company did for Wal-Mart helping it unlock sustainable ideas from its own employees. Wal-Mart is notorious for its laser focus on cost reduction, and has started to realize that it can save money by reducing energy consumption in its stores. But the company was having trouble recognizing simple, achievable ideas suggested by employees.

After adopting tools developed by Imaginatik, Wal-Mart was able to collect thousands of ideas from employees that were getting lost in the old "suggestion box," and wound up implementing $38 million in cost savings from just four days of idea gathering, Turrell said.

Hewlett-Packard is using Imaginatik's software to help make improvements to the company's Labs division, said Prith Banerjee, the new director of HP Labs. Sustainability research is one of the new core components of HP Labs' research , and it shows up in products that help HP and its customers reduce cooling and power in their huge data centers.

This is a classic example of sustainability: reducing the amount of power used in data centers helps conserve energy, but it also reduces the costs to operate those data centers. For all the talk thrown out there by corporations as green thinking has become trendier, everything still comes down to the bottom line, said Steve Di Biase, senior vice president and chief scientific officer for JohnsonDiversey, a cleaning products company.

"If you can't be profitable, sustainability doesn't make sense," Di Biase said.

About the author

    Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.

     

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