Ford Motor takes impressive steps on water stewardship
While an analysis of the automobile industry will often laser in on materials such as steel and fossil fuels, car manufacturers also consume copious amounts of water. While the US automobile industry’s hub in Detroit is fortunate to be located in Michigan, a state that has large amounts of fresh water, the industry’s supply chain has an enormous impact on local water supplies. As with the case of beverage companies, carmakers have got to be mindful of the effect their operations have on local communities as they compete with local businesses and residents for water.
Ford Motor Company has addressed its impact on water supplies for over a decade. When Bill Ford, then-CEO and now chairman, decided sustainability had to lie within the core of his company’s strategy, his shift at first scored little but sneers from sceptical shareholders, jaded customers and an angry Wall Street. But under Ford and current CEO, Alan Mulally, Ford is taking impressive steps towards more sustainable business practices. Aside from cars with better fuel mileage, water stewardship has been one of Ford Motor’s most impressive achievements.
The commitment to water stewardship started with a green roof at Ford Motor’s River Rouge factory outside of Detroit. The 10-acre swath of sedum plants, in addition to other water saving technologies, cost the company $15m (£9.6m) when it was completed in 2003. The alternative to paying for facilities to clean water runoff from the factory and surrounding parking lots that was polluting the nearby river would otherwise have cost $50m to meet US Environmental Protection Agency standards.
The green roof marked a symbolic start to Ford Motor’s actions to minimise water usage across the company’s operations. The solution to reducing the eight cubic metres of water used for each manufactured vehicle in 2006, included manysmall and incremental steps. The company installed reverse-osmosis water recycling systems in many factories, which reduced the need to consume water that had otherwise been taken away from local drinking water supplies. Dry machining technology now lubricates cutting tools on an assembly line with a thin application of oil instead of traditional methods that had required large amounts of water. Internal water management and auditing software system tracks water usage at factories, research facilities and corporate offices. As of 2011, the water use per vehicle ratio stands at 4.7 cubic metres. The company’s goal is to push that ratio down to 4.0 by 2015.
The Ford Motor factory that boasts the most parsimonious use of water is in Chennai, India. The region’s surging population and economy have together created a huge strain on local water supplies. While churning out Ford Fusions and Fiestas, the Chennai plant operates a zero-discharge water recycling system that diverts wastewater streams everywhere, from the cafeteria to the assembly lines. A three stage reverse osmosis system distills used water until it becomes a solid salt that is eventually disposed as waste. The $500m plant in 2011 used an average of 1.15 cubic metres of water for every car that rolled off the assembly line.
For Ford Motor and its 166,000 global employees, these aggressive water conservation measures have resulted in a 62% reduction in water consumption since 2000. But for this once rigid rust-belt manufacturer, this is not about a few glossy bullet points in a sustainability report. The company’s attention to water also drives a new culture of innovation at Ford Motor, where scientists, engineers and designers compete against one another to design the most energy efficient and aerodynamic automobiles possible. From car seats filled with foam derived out of soy to upholstery made out of recycled plastic bottles, all of these measures help reduce the effects of a carbon and water intensive industry. Drivers must also do their part, however. Ford Motor estimates that 87% of a car’s lifecycle water consumption occurs during the total use phase of the vehicle.