It Really Can Pay To Clean Up Your Act

When scientists at 3M Co. began working on the Never Rust Wool Soap Pad in the early 1990s, they faced a slew of challenges. Naturally, they wanted a product that worked well and appealed to consumers. Just as important: It had to be environmentally friendly. The pad's rising sales seem to indicate that the researchers met their first two goals. And they didn't do badly on the third one either. The pad is made of recycled plastic bottles and uses a nonphosphorous soap that won't pollute rivers and streams.

Such ecological sensitivity may seem out of place at one of the nation's industrial giants. But the environment is a big concern at 3M. All together, the company devoted over 15% of its $1 billion R&D budget to environmentally related research last year--and for compelling bottom-line reasons. For starters, environmentally safe products appeal to consumers these days: Never Rust's benign ingredients are clearly marked on the package. And reducing waste from manufacturing cuts pollution--and 3M's costs.

It's that kind of environmental consciousness that has won 3M a reputation as a corporate leader in pollution control and recycling. 3M has a "strong commitment to doing the right thing," says Barbara Haas, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Corporate Conservation Council.

The company first paid close attention to the environment in the mid-1970s as regulators began tightening controls on pollutants. Before long, 3M found that programs to combat pollution could also cut down on chemical byproducts and other waste. In 1975, the company launched a program, called Pollution Prevention Pays, that solicits employee suggestions on how to cut waste and recycle materials. So far, 3Mers have generated 4,100 ideas that have eliminated 1.3 billion pounds of pollutants and saved the company more than $710 million.

The program has also been extended to 3M plants worldwide, even in regions where ecological issues are far less prominent. In 1992, for example, a dozen employees at the company's factory in Manila came up with the idea of making toilet-bowl brushes from the leftover plastic fibers used in making Scotch-Brite cleaning cloths.

More recently, 3M has decided to emphasize its environmental correctness in its marketing pitch to consumers. The Never Rust Soap pad was a start. In the future, 3M product developers will have to consider certain environmental standards as part of a broader "green marketing" strategy.

Of course, the company isn't run by a bunch of tree-huggers. Many of 3M's recent programs to control pollution at its plants were launched in anticipation of tighter regulatory mandates. And the company carefully weighs the potential costs and benefits of its recycling programs. Still, 3M is demonstrating that paying attention to the environment isn't just a regulatory burden. It can make good business sense as well.

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