Many manufacturers voluntarily reducing pollutants

C By Melissa Allison

cHICAGO (KRT) – Hundreds of manufacturers, from industries as diverse as steel and concrete, are going beyond U.S. environmental regulations to voluntarily reduce the amount of pollutants they produce.

But getting customers and other industry leaders to follow suit has become a tough sell. On Wall Street, doubters say such an environmental push does not affect profits and stock prices enough to spark a trend.

The lack of interest frustrates Paul Yhouse, chief executive of Dundee, Mich.-based Holcim (US) Inc., a maker of cement products whose parent company is based in Switzerland.

For roughly a decade, Holcim has sold products that are more environmentally friendly than traditional cement. The process of making cement–the key ingredient in concrete – produces large quantities of greenhouse gases, which are blamed for dangerous increases in the Earth’s temperature.

In Europe, Holcim products are very popular, but in the U.S., where Holcim has 14 plants, the new products are practically ignored. The company made 11 million tons of cement products for U.S. customers last year, but only 10 percent used a process that emits less carbon dioxide during manufacturing.

Over the past 10 years, Holcim spent roughly $1 billion on new equipment to make the cement alternatives, which cost about the same as traditional cement, and to lower its energy consumption.

Now it’s a matter of selling customers on the alternative products. Holcim is part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program for companies looking to voluntarily limit their greenhouse emissions.

It has agreed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 12 percent for every ton of cement produced by 2008 from 2000 levels.

To do that, Holcim needs the help of some of its largest clients – federal, state and local governments.

“If they really wanted to reduce emissions, they could say, `Here’s a highway grant, and we want it to include lower emissions products,'” Yhouse said.

Officials at Bethlehem Steel Corp. in Pennsylvania, also part of the EPA program, are big on educating their peers about cutting back on energy use and emissions.

“We have to get the message out,” said Richard Fillman, director of energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Bethlehem.

Like many others, the company wants to avoid stricter regulations down the road, and hopes that by taking voluntary measures it will avoid what it considers inefficient, cookie-cutter regulations handed down by the government.

Bethlehem saves money when it cuts greenhouse emissions because it lowers the amount of energy it uses. Nearly 20 percent of the steel manufacturer’s operating costs come from energy.

Activists herald the voluntary environmentalism of some companies as a coming trend in corporate America.

“It’s grown quite big, and gotten past social investing into value investing,” said Richard Bennett, principal at Lens, a Portland, Maine-based consulting firm for investor activists.

Companies are realizing that what is good for the environment can be good for the bottom line as well, he said.

“There is a sense that, whether or not it’s required by the government to reduce your waste stream, having a wasteful process and wasteful results are not good for the bottom line,” Bennett said.

That flies against the conventional corporate wisdom that becoming environmentally clean, particularly at a time when scrubbing a coal-fired power plant can cost half a billion dollars, is detrimental to profits.

Over the past five years, the stocks of environmental leaders in almost every industrial sector outperformed their non-environmentally conscious counterparts by 300 to 3,000 basis points a year, said Frank Dixon, director of research at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. The New York firm analyzes the financial impact of environmental and social efforts on companies and their investors.

But that’s only part of the story, he said. Profits, stocks and the price of goods in individual sectors do not take into account the damage they might be doing in other areas.

Pollution takes a toll on health, meaning higher health-care and insurance costs for everyone, Dixon said.

Sandra Waddock, a professor of management at Boston College, said the growing evidence of a positive link between financial performance and environmental responsibility demonstrates that firms with good management behave responsibly – toward the environment, employees and shareholders – and therefore perform better.

Many environmental cleaning efforts save money and attract environmentally conscious customers and shareholders, Waddock said.

“It’s not rocket science. If you reduce the amount of packaging you’re using, it saves the amount of money you spend on packaging. If you are able to reduce the raw materials you need to make a product, you’re saving money that way,” she said.

Yet the financial benefits are not so obvious to the investment community.

“I can’t see any way an analyst would factor into an earnings model a line item for above-and-beyond cleanup,” said Joseph Correnti, director of research at Wayne Hummer Investments, which is owned by Wintrust Financial Corp. in Lake Forest.

But meeting EPA requirements counts for a lot, he added.

That was a lesson DaimlerChrysler Corp. learned the hard way recently when it agreed to pay $144,000 to resolve a hazardous waste complaint brought by the EPA.

Some U.S. truck manufacturers face millions of dollars in fines because they are producing engines with higher emissions than regulations allow.

Still, Wall Street finds few reasons to reward companies for doing more than the EPA asks.