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Soy Seats In New Cars: Are Companies Doing Enough For Environment?

A worker at Ford's assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., installs back seats made from soy-based foam in a Ford C-Max.
Jason Margolis

It's earnings season on Wall Street, and investors are again looking to quarterly reports to gauge the health of companies. Some environmentalists are looking to so-called "sustainability reports" — how companies are improving their ecological footprints. But not all environmentalists are putting so much stock in these reports.

Andrew Hoffman, at the University of Michigan, breaks environmentalists into two colors, or rather shades of a color. First, the perspective of the "dark greens":

"Business is the enemy because they just want to make money and they don't care about the environment," Hoffman says.

Then, there's the "bright green."

"[That person] looks at business as an ally, looks at the market as the solution. Business is the power. So if we're going to solve the problems we face, it has to come through business," Hoffman says.

Hoffman puts himself in this camp. He splits his time between the University of Michigan's Business School and the School of Natural Resources and Environment as the director of the University's Erb Institute, which blends the two fields. Hoffman teaches sustainability in business, and we're not just talking about Patagonia and Tom's of Maine. He tracks what big multinationals are doing.

"Dow is doing some really interesting things on valuing ecosystem services partnering with the Nature Conservancy," says Hoffman. " Coca-Cola, for all its problems, is doing a lot of work to start to look at water issues."

And just down the road, Hoffman points to Ford Motor Co. The automaker is improving its ecological footprint by making changes like using more renewable materials in its manufacturing process for interior car parts.

At its assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., workers quickly install back seats in sedans. In the past, the padding in seats was made mostly from petroleum-based compounds. Aaron Miller with Ford's communications team says now, they're made partly from plants, specifically soy.

Chemical engineer Debbie Mielewski heads Ford's plastics and sustainable research division. She says the automaker is looking to increase the amount of environmentally friendly materials in its vehicles.
Jason Margolis / NPR
Chemical engineer Debbie Mielewski heads Ford's plastics and sustainable research division. She says the automaker is looking to increase the amount of environmentally friendly materials in its vehicles.

"If you feel it, it's very structured, very rigid," Miller says, picking up a seat. "So when we use it in our seats, it meets the same safety standards, but now we're using more environmentally friendly materials."

But before there were soy seats in a factory, there were soybeans in a lab. Chemical engineer Debbie Mielewski, who heads Ford's plastics and sustainable research division, points to some misshapen, deformed soy foams.

"Stinky, flat, something that nobody really wanted in their car or would be interested in sitting on," she says.

Eventually, her team got the formula exactly right.

"We're utilizing about 31,251 soy beans in every vehicle. But toward the future, we'd like to put even more bio-based content in the foams," Mielewski says.

She still has to include some petroleum compounds to make her foam. She'd like to eliminate that entirely with something like algae — to further reduce the company's carbon emissions.

She's also looking to build dashboard components from tomato stems, oat hulls and old shredded U.S. currency.

Before chemists can run years of tests, they first need approval from people like John Viera, Ford's global director of sustainability.

Would Ford use biomaterials that cost the company a little more?

"We wouldn't because we just really believe there are more than enough opportunities to find applications that are good for business and good for the environment," Viera says.

Ford has won several prominent environmental awards for its work with biomaterials and for reducing energy use and waste at its factories, including being named one of the Ethisphere Institute's most ethical companies for six straight years. Still, not everyone is impressed.

John Ehrenfeld, a retired faculty member from MIT who studies business and the environment, says the very idea of a corporate sustainability report is flawed.

"I think companies just don't get it," he says. "Almost all things that show up in sustainability plans are one form of Band-Aid, trying to do less bad."

Ehrenfeld doesn't think companies like Ford are trying to mislead people.

"I just think that if they're fooling anybody, they're fooling themselves about the nature of the problem and the effectiveness of their solutions," he says.

He says if Ford was really serious about tackling issues like global warming, it would invest in things like public transportation.

Ford's leaders don't entirely disagree.

Viera says Ford wants to become a "mobility solutions" leader — moving goods and people around in increasingly congested places, and not just by selling more cars and trucks. For that to work, though, the company — or any for-profit company — has to make sure it can make money doing it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Margolis
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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