Mr. Muscle is pushing the envelope on lean manufacturing. But is SC Johnson really a sustainable business?

Tom Idle takes a tour of SC Johnson’s Amsterdam Plant.  The plant has been zero-landfill for more than a decade, and recycled almost 800 tons of its waste in 2013. SC Johnson is clearly very proud of it.

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Pronto, one of many SC Johnson products coming off the production line at Europlant in Amsterdam.

Recently, SC Johnson announced that its plant in Manaus, Brazil had become its eighth zero-landfill facility, putting it well on track towards meeting a 2016 target of cutting manufacturing waste from its facilities across the world by 70%.

Its other zero-landfill facilities – defined as being achieved without incineration – include two in China and one each in Pakistan, the Netherlands, the US, Poland and Canada. In 2012, ten of the company’s 20 sites achieved waste diversion rates of at least 90%.

Headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, the US business has rarely talked up its sustainability credentials during its 128-year history. But, keen to show off its facilities in action, it went one step further than that last month.

I was one of a select group of European journalists to be given access to Europlant, the company’s facility in Mijdrecht, just outside Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It is a plant that has been zero-landfill for more than a decade, and recycled almost 800 tons of its waste in 2013. SC Johnson is clearly very proud of it.

It’s a vast site that sits on the edge of an old farming village some five metres below sea level (this is the Netherlands, after all). And thanks largely to a Huig Maaskant-designed front end, it resembles more ‘Bond-baddie-lair’ than cutting-edge manufacturing plant.

On-site suppliers

Since the 300,000 square-foot plant started producing products in 1964, a plethora of initiatives – ranging from CFC-free aersols in 1975, to the introduction of compressed air-propelled aersols in 1993 – have seen the company drive out waste and reduce cost at every stage of the process. At one end of the site is the company that supplies the cans into which SC Johnson’s chemicals are pumped ready for sale, located just a few hundred feet from the factory door, eliminating hefty transportation costs associated with moving empty containers from A to B. An electric train is used to move goods and raw materials around the site.

And the company that supplies the plastic bottles for Toilet Duck, among other brands, sits at the other end of the site.

The 15-line production facility operates five days a week, 24 hours a day to produce 400 million units of cleaning products and air fresheners every year. Products leave here and head out across Europe to order, with no stock housed on site.

The tour proves hypnotic. Watching empty cans and bottles run around mini conveyor-belts and magnificent robotic arms lift cardboard boxes, empty them and fold them precision-neatly ready to be reused at least 30 more times, should not be fascinating. But it is.

I have written about zero-waste manufacturing plants across the world for years now. But it is not until you see an operation on this scale close up that you truly appreciate how impressive an achievement not sending an ounce of waste to the rubbish dump actually is.

The tour proves hypnotic. 

And then there’s the packaging. Aerosol-based products are made here using compressed gas technology, which reduces volatile organic compounds (VOCs). By using this technology for its Glade-branded air freshener products, SC Johnson has cut 10 tonnes of liquid petroleum gas (LPG) from its European manufacture of aerosol products and the business is now Europe’s largest supplier of aerosol products using this technology.

And the plastic bottles used for Mr Muscle are much less heavy than they used to be, with light-weighting helping to shed 25% of their weight.

Water, water

Oh, and as for water used in the manufacturing process: it is all recycled on-site, with the plant’s waste water facility no longer being used. In fact, it was closed down in 1985 as it didn’t have enough waste water to feed into it. Instead, the company now reuses small residues back into its products, eliminating waste completely. There are 16 natural wells outside that help to fill a pond at one end of the site, providing a renewable supply of water in case of fire (handy, given the amount of chemicals used in production).

Meanwhile, the business is mid-way through a program to switch out the lights across the entire factory in favour of energy-saving LEDs.

The leanness and efficiency of the process is very impressive. And, as Sander Molkenboer, director of the Europlant facility, tells me during the tour: there is still plenty of efficiencies to be gained here. And the business is committed to continuously identifying new and scalable ways to minimize its impact and cut costs, encouraging those on the factory floor – who are closest to the processes and understand the technologies involved inside-out – to innovate and find new ways of working.

Pride of Europlant

Outside, while the nine-hectare tree-plantation created by staff and the bee colony are to be commended, it is clear that the SC Johnson team are dying to show off the “pride of Europlant”, as safety, health, and environment manager, Stef Spaans, describes it.

The 125 metre-high wind turbine towers over the site and can be seen from miles outside Mijdrecht. The 3MW Vestas unit was installed to great fanfare in the summer of 2009 after a lengthy, eight-year regulatory approval process. “After such a long wait, it was installed within 24 hours – which was incredible,” says Spaans.

By next summer the turbine – which generates 10 million kWh of electricity a year, has a 20-year lifespan and provides around half of Europlant’s power – will have paid for itself.

Given the long-delay in getting planning approval, it hasn’t been an easy journey. Dutch rules only allow turbines to be erected in rows of odd numbers, meaning the company is hamstrung in not being able to add to its existing turbine. “We have few options on site. But with technology evolving all the time, we do have scope to increase the capacity of this turbine from 3MW to 5.7MW, so we can upgrade,” says Spaans, clearly in love with the contraption that gets most attention on this site.

Headache

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Sam Johnson’s mantra sits proudly at Europlant’s entrance.

According to Clint Filipowicz, senior director for manufacturing in Europe, Middle East, and Africa, SC Johnson is “well on track” to meet all of its sustainability goals. It will now set a series of five-year targets and aims to create a 100% renewably-powered plant at its site in Wisconsin

While suitably impressed, the tour of Europlant left me with one nagging question (and a slight headache thanks to the sickly fragrance of Toilet Duck emanating from the factory floor): Clearly, SC Johnson is an efficient business. But is it a sustainable one?

SC Johnson is an efficient business. But is it a sustainable one?

Yes, it is a family-owned business (a fact we are told many times during our time at Europlant). The corporate mantra is signposted in large lettering so that all visitors will not forget: ‘Every place should be a better place because we are there’, a quote made by fourth generation leader, Sam Johnson.

And being a family company is about “doing what is right with core family values, looking after the environment, local communities, staff and consumers,” says Filipowicz. And without shareholders to worry about, family businesses have the freedom to “plan holistically for the long-term”, as the giant wind turbine, with a six year ROI attests. “It’s also about developing products to enhance people’s lives, but doing so responsibly.”

But what of these products? Despite the companies protestations that it is not in any way a “chemicals company”, chemical-based cleaning and pest-control products are what this company is all about.

And, as many an environmentalist would suggest, the impact of these products on the natural environment is still very much unknown. If you compare SC Johnson’s products with those being developed by the likes of Method or Ecover – companies that have proven you can make cleaning products using natural substances – describing your business as ‘sustainable’ edges into dodgy territory.

Green List

Before leaving, I made this point to the company’s director of global public affairs, Jam Stewart. She is taken aback by the suggestion that SC Johnson is, in fact, not a sustainable business and points me in the direction of the Green List, an internal program that assesses all of the chemicals it uses. It looks at them against 45 criteria, such as toxicity, and ranks them on a four-scale system as being either ‘zero rated’, ‘good’, ‘better’ or ‘best’.

“Green List takes all of the possible ingredients our formulas can use,” she says. “There are a whole list of restricted use materials that, even though they are perfectly legal to use, we have decided not to use. And ‘zero rated’ ingredients in limited instances. The real goal is about increasing our use of ‘better’ or ‘best’ substances.”

Since the program was launched in 2001, the company has gone from having 4% of its substances in the ‘better’ or ‘best’ category to 44%. By 2016, the goal is to have 58% of substances ‘better’ or ‘best’. “We know this is something that needs to be improved,” says Stewart. “And this is how we are holding ourselves accountable to that.”

Whether the company is stretching itself enough to drive out nasty chemicals from its products is still very much open to debate – but the Green List is clearly working as a tool to get formulators, scientists and suppliers on board.

It’s whippet-lean processes, landfill-free factories and continuous efforts to drive out waste are clearly embedded into the corporate strategy – and not to be sniffed at. And as a family-run business, justifying expenditure in R&D or renewable energy technology to achieve its goals is a no-brainer.

But it’s also clear that SC Johnson’s approach to creating a sustainable business is currently being driven by cost-cutting and efficiency, rather than a transformative shift in its business model of producing chemicals-based cleaning products.

My trip to Europlant was funded by SC Johnson. For more information on SC Johnson’s approach to sustainability, visit the website.

This article was originally published on the 2degrees network
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Tom Idle is a writer, journalist, editor and commentator in the field of corporate sustainability, climate change policy, environmental protection, clean energy and corporate social responsibility.  He is Editor-in-chief at 2degrees network.