Michael Nice assembles a panel of tiles at Encore Ceramics in Grants Pass. The small high-end decorative tile manufacturer has focused on making the company as sustainable as possible. - AP

Ceramics firm embraces sustainability manufacturing

GRANTS PASS — A lot of people talk about sustainability.

Barry Russell, CEO of a small high-end decorative tile manufacturer called Encore Ceramics, goes way past the point that he can obviously justify it for the bottom line.

All three cars owned by the company are hybrids. Russell buys carbon-offsets for air and highway miles logged by the company. Solar panels on the roof produce some electricity and the rest is green-tagged. More solar panels are going in. Leftover clay and glazes are recycled so they don't become pollution. Packaging is almost exclusively recycled paper. Motion-detector switches turn lights on and off automatically.

"Am I crazy?" says Russell. "Maybe."

Not so much crazy as ahead of the curve in a growing business ethic that is saying companies need to save energy, recycle more, produce less waste, and reduce the need for foreign oil, said James Sweeney, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

"Most every company I ever worked with has its own internal set of principles that restrict them from being willing to do a group of things that may be legal but they think are unethical," said Sweeney.

"What seems to be happening now, more and more, is understanding one of those ethical principles is that we need to take personal responsibility for our impacts on the environment."

When it comes to acting on that ethic, small privately held companies like Encore Ceramics have a big advantage over large publicly held ones, said Deborah Gallagher, professor of environmental policy at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment.

"You have stockholders and other stockholders that are interested in the bottom line, and they only let the public corporations go so far," she said. "If you have a private company it's a little easier. The same goes for small versus large."

However, dominant corporations have a far greater impact when they take meaningful steps to go green, such as Wal-Mart demanding its suppliers become more sustainable, she added.

She remains skeptical large corporations will go to the lengths that some small companies are going to without government mandates, or that sustainability will have much impact on the environment until more major corporations make big commitments.

One big hurdle CEOs face is accounting for the benefits of sustainable manufacturing practices, such as disposing of hazardous wastes, recycling, and dependence on foreign oil.

Likewise, there are few computer tools for engineers and designers that easily calculate the embedded energy costs and recyclability of materials the way there are to figure the strength and flexibility.

But as manufacturers face the prospects of taxes on greenhouse gases, tougher disposal laws, and penalties for not using green power — all being talked about in California — companies like Encore Ceramics will be ahead of the curve, said David Dornfeld, professor of manufacturing engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. Conventional accounting practices don't reflect them.

Breakthroughs can be expected once a company commits to examining every aspect of a business through the lens of sustainability, said Jim Hartzfeld, of InterfaceRAISE LLC, a sustainability consulting firm.

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