06/25/2010 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sony Sees the Value of Zero

Though corporate green efforts have grown exponentially in the last decade, most initiatives fall woefully short of what's necessary to meet the enormous sustainability challenges we face -- from climate change to water shortages to poverty and social equity.

That's why it's so refreshing to see one large company, Sony, set a goal of zero environmental footprint by 2050. The company has dubbed this mission its "Road to Zero."

Before diving into how Sony has approached its target-setting exercise, here's a quick review of why "zero" is an idea whose time has come: In a resource and carbon-constrained world, the best scientists tell us, we need to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 80% by mid-century (it's no coincidence that Sony picked 2050). For other pressing issues, society, governments, and the cold realities of science will demand even more dramatic changes. The word "zero" -- as in zero waste, zero net water use, zero toxicity, zero child labor, zero fatalities, and zero carbon -- will by necessity become a core part of business strategy and operations. (One large consumer products company is in the process of setting sustainability targets, which it calls the "Eight Zeros.")

Only one of the green-themed zeros has had broad appeal thus far in the business community -- the quest to send no waste to landfills. Most people shorthand this pursuit to "zero waste" even though it's not really zero (but everything is being recycled or, much less preferably, incinerated).

Subaru demonstrated it could be done in 2004 in its Lafayette, Indiana plant (saving millions of dollars in the process), and GM has recently achieved the goal at 62 plants across the world. These are impressive feats, but we'll need even greater innovation to get to the other zeros.

Yet outside of a few usual suspects, such as perennial sustainability leader Interface Flooring or Wal-Mart's goal of using 100% renewable energy, there are nearly no companies (or countries for that matter) that have outlined a path to get to zero environmental footprint.

This spring, however, Sony made the leap. If you spend some time at the Sony site dedicated to the Road to Zero, you get the sense that executives have clearly thought this through. They seem to realize that a big goal, just hanging out there on its own, would be far too daunting, nebulous, and not very actionable. So The Road to Zero works, as I see it, because of two fundamental components.

First, the company broke up the goal into pieces, separating the discussion into four "perspectives" and six "lifecycle" stages. Sony has phrased the perspectives as ongoing actions:

- Curbing climate change,
- Conserving resources (which covers material use, waste, recycling, and water),
- Promoting biodiversity, and
- Controlling chemical substances.

The perspectives hew closely to the biggest environmental challenges we face as a species: climate change and energy, water, biodiversity, and chemicals and toxics. So while I might nit-pick and suggest that "conserving resources" is a bit too broad to be actionable, it's a good list.

The six lifecycle stages cover:

- Research and development,
- Product planning and design,
- Procurement,
- Business operations,
- Distribution, and
- Take-back and recycling.

Sony indicates that it will need to find a path to zero in each area, using different tactics and approaches. In distribution, for example, Sony describes a broad set of strategies including smaller packaging, improved loading efficiency, and shifting to more rail and water transport.

The Road to Zero site describes these all in very general terms, which reflect the reality that nobody really knows exactly how to get to zero. But what's important is that Sony is pairing this directional exercise with some down-and-dirty tactical goals as well. So...

Second, Sony set interim targets dubbed "Green Management 2015," which follow and build on its now-completed "Green Management 2010." This step is critical and the goals are both specific (reduce greenhouse gases 30% in absolute terms from 2000) and thought provoking (reduce mass per product by 10%). For some areas, such as operations and distributions, the targets are numeric and clearly understood. For others, such as R&D, they're more strategic.

The four environmental impact areas -- or perspectives as Sony calls them -- and the six lifecycle phases make up a matrix. Thus the company has set a climate-related goal for each lifecycle phase, chemical reduction goals for most phases, and so on.

Sony's site repeatedly refers to hitting zero "throughout the lifecycle of our products," which raises an interesting question: Will Sony be demanding that its suppliers hit zero as well? I would think that this discussion could not be very far away.

Of course, we could debate if "zero" is even good enough, since cutting-edge sustainability thinking focuses on creating products that improve the environment (such as concrete that captures CO2 in its manufacturing process or building materials that clean the air). But for the big guys like Sony -- and for all of us -- zero is a pretty good start.

This post first appeared at Harvard Business Review Online