Ford meets water consumption goals two years early – does this make Ford “Sustainable”?

Ford Motors is focusing on water issues in its 15th annual Sustainability report.  The company made a commitment to aggressively step up efforts on water reduction/conservation, and is two years ahead of schedule.  We can hear Ford’s Sustainability leaders patting themselves on the back from here.

One place the “Long Tailpipe” reaches is the impact of manufacturing vehicles such as the ones Ford sells.  While most of the focus is on greenhouse gases (CO2) and climate change, we wish more automakers took a more holistic approach to cleaning up their acts.  The CO2/Climate Change impact is only one of thousands/millions of negative impacts that all manufacturing operations perpetrate on all of us.

The basic fact of manufacturing cars and trucks, and their usage, is the whole business is inherently unsustainable.  Ford and the other automakers have a huge task before them in order to properly take on the title of “Sustainable Corporation”.

In a press release today the company claims “Leaders at Ford believe it is a basic human right to have clean, affordable drinking water and access to sanitation”. That’s a nice thing to say, and to back it up Ford offers this: in 2013 “Ford reduced per vehicle water use by 30 percent globally from a 2009 baseline, reaching its goal two years ahead of schedule. Plans are under way to further cut water use by another 2 percent this year and to set new long-term goals.”

Cool.  That’s either a significant result, or else they set the goal too low.

“As Ford continues with its largest global expansion in more than 50 years, the company also recognizes that working in regions struggling with water scarcity will soon make water a costly commodity,” said John Fleming, executive vice president, Global Manufacturing and Labor Affairs for Ford Motor Company. “From a business perspective, understanding future constraints and immediately reducing Ford’s water consumption makes sense.”

Clean water supplies are a huge and largely unrecognized problem – The water emergency and severe drought we’re having in California is just one symptom of this problem.  One general cause is that as the climate changes, it doesn’t change evenly around the globe.  Some areas are becoming drier, while other areas are becoming wetter.  And of course a big portion of the problem is the increasing population requiring ever more clean water.

Another concrete action is that, in April 2014, Ford CEO Alan Mulally signed the UN CEO Water Mandate.  This organization is chartered with helping corporations to be better global citizens, especially in water-stressed regions.

Why should a business like Ford care about water supplies?  This picture from the UN CEO Water Mandate says a lot:

Basically, the image says we’re all in deep doo-doo.  All around the planet water is starting to be used faster than the natural replenishment rate.  The places that are already water-stressed are even more so stressed, while the places that weren’t water stressed are beginning to be.

What’s Ford doing in this area of work?

According to Ford’s Sustainability report, the company is making broad changes across its global operations to not only clean up its own facilities, reducing water use and other positive changes at its own facilities, but working with its neighboring communities and its suppliers on their own environmental goals.  In other words, as a global corporation Ford is seeking to make a global impact.

Without giving specifics, the company is working with its Tier 1 suppliers on first documenting environmental impacts like water consumption, then implementing changes to reduce those impacts.  Each of these companies is in turn working with their own Tier 1 suppliers to make similar reductions.  And because Ford’s suppliers in turn supply parts and material to other automakers, Ford’s efforts are leading to environmental gains across the automotive industry.

A specific example Ford gave is their Cuautitlán Stamping and Assembly Plant in Cuautitlán, Mexico.  When the factory was built in 1964, it was the only major factory in the area.  Over the years the number of factories have grown – no doubt due to NAFTA’s influence in shipping manufacturing to Mexico.  The area that formerly had enough water for everyone, now requires that water is pumped in from other areas.

Ford made changes at the facility including

Installing dedicated piping for potable water to ensure it is used only for human consumption
Recycling all other water used at the plant
Replacing asphalt with ecological concrete, which allows rain to reenter the ground

This resulted in almost 58 percent reduction in water use per vehicle produced at Cuautitlán Stamping and Assembly Plant between 2000 and 2013.  That’s a reduction in water consumption for manufacturing, not over the lifecycle of the vehicle.

Ecological Concrete is an interesting sort of material.  It acts as concrete, allowing an organization to build a parking lot or road network, but it is porous to allow water to seep through the concrete rather than have the water run off to the edges of the parking lot.  This means ground water is naturally recharged, whereas traditional road and parking lot materials prevent the natural mechanisms of recharging ground water.  By ensuring water is absorbed by the ground, the aquifers are recharged, ensuring improved water supply for everyone, and less water runoff means less chance of flooding during rainstorms.

Ford certainly knows how to portray having a broad and holistic strategy for cleaning up its act.  They’re doing deep work to start using recycled and recyclable materials in cars, they’ve installed renewable electricity production at many factories (wind/solar), reduced water consumption, etc.  This is all cool stuff, but there’s a couple things to remember about Ford and the automotive industry in general.

First, Ford isn’t exactly going gung-ho into electric vehicles.  The Ford Focus Electric has lackluster results, and the Ford Fusion Energi and Ford C-MAX Energi are not getting the attention they deserve.  Ford is instead focusing on other areas such as lightweighting the vehicles, and rolling out EcoBoost engines for higher fuel efficiency.

Second, the basic fact of the product – cars and trucks – is essentially a huge huge huge negative environmental impact.  Like most product manufacturing, these companies extract raw materials from various places – causing a variety of economic harms in the process.  The processing and manufacturing of the raw materials causes even more economic harm.  Then this specific product, cars and trucks, force the rest of us to construct roads and parking lots and bridges so the cars and trucks can drive around.  All that infrastructure causes its own environmental harm.  Then, the fuel typically used causes a huge range of environmental problems.

Bottom line is, Ford and the other automakers have a long row to hoe before they can properly wear the mantle of “Sustainable Corporation.”

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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