It goes without saying that the entrepreneurs who built the U.S. economic miracle were visionaries. Not only did they lead the way in innovation, risk taking and perseverance, but many were ahead of their time in conservation. To them, being good stewards of the forest made good business sense; it also preserved the future. Their history tells us that concern for the environment is not a recent phenomenon.

Let's look back at two of the 20th century's most successful businessmen and how they went green.

Frederick Weyerhaeuser

Weyerhaeuser was a true timber baron. At the close of the 19th century he owned more timberland than any other American. In 1900 he and his partners bought 900,000 acres of prime forest in Washington. At the time of that purchase, he said, "This is not for us, nor for our children but for our grandchildren." To make that statement a fact, Weyerhaeuser set out to change the "cut and get out" mentality of loggers and saw millers of his time.

In fact, the reason Weyerhaeuser bought those acres in the Pacific Northwest is that the Upper Midwest, where he normally operated, had been cut over. Since then his company has evidenced its quest for more efficient ways to grow and convert wood fiber by:

  • Applying the concept of sustainable forestry in 1904 to ensure a continuous wood supply.
  • Manufacturing commercial products from "wood leftovers" starting in 1921.
  • Founding the first certified U.S. tree farm in 1941.
  • Implementing high-yield forestry practices in 1967 to double tree growth per acre.
  • Recycling wastepaper and producing oriented strand board starting in the 1980s.

Today the Weyerhaeuser Co., his legacy, lives its belief that trees are valuable by:

  • Harvesting only 1 to 3 percent of the timberland it manages.
  • Making paper that averages 35 percent post-consumer recycled content.
  • Refusing to operate in native tropical forests or harvest old-growth timber in the United States.
  • Opposing illegal logging around the world.
  • Generating two-thirds of the energy needs of its pulp and paper mills from process byproducts.

The history of Frederick Weyerhaeuser and his successors teaches us a valuable lesson: sustainable forest practices can result in a sustainable business. The company he founded now has annual sales of $22 billion and employs 41,000. As importantly, his company is a solid corporate citizen.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, best known for inventing the assembly line and building a massive automotive empire, was a staunch conservationist. In his day motor car bodies were made of hardwood. To supply the wood needs of his burgeoning company, Ford owned more than 700,000 acres of timberland. Like Weyerhaeuser, he believed that "there is wood enough in this country for everyone when we learn how to use it."

Ford's intelligent use of wood started in the forest. No tree less than 12 inches in diameter was harvested. Felling was done with powered saws to minimize the fiber left on the stump. Undergrowth was cleared regularly to prevent forest fires.

His sawmills were leading edge for their time. The largest sawed 300,000 board feet daily. Ford saw two inefficiencies in the conventional method of producing lumber: the waste of producing commercial sizes of lumber from the log and the cutting of specific parts from those sizes. He asked, "Why should we have to buy a 10-foot-plank if only 5 feet are needed?" To combat these losses, Ford cut car parts from green, unedged boards rather than kiln-dried standard sizes. This technique improved recovery of usable parts by 30 percent. Once dried, the rough parts were then machined into car parts in plants near the sawmills to eliminate paying freight on wood waste. Burning that waste powered turbines to generate electricity. The steam exiting the turbines was used to heat his dry kilns.

Ford's philosophy aimed to get something for nothing. He once said, "We treat each tree as wood until nothing remains that serves as wood, and then we treat what remains as a chemical compound to be broken down into other chemicals that can be used in our business." Some of his waste was converted into upholstery fabric backer and cardboard packaging that replaced solid wood containers. Other byproducts included charcoal, tar, methyl alcohol and fuel gas.

Ford focused on recycling all scrap wood that entered his plants or was generated there. He created salvage departments where specially designed machinery removed nails so that waste boards could be converted into containers for shipping car parts. Short pieces of lumber were joined into longer lengths using a specially designed splicing plate. The resulting pieces made up shipping containers.

Ford asked a key question, "Why should there be so much waste to begin with?" His engineers responded by redesigning car parts to minimize their wood content. They also invented new machining methods to further reduce raw material requirements. And on the plant floor the priority was making the part right to begin with to minimize waste. This precision, he believed, also resulted in more efficient assembly and consistent product quality.

Ford believed that lean processes also were green. "Having a stock of raw materials or finished goods in excess of requirements is waste, which turns up in high prices and low wages", he said. Reducing inventories to the bare minimum saves space that must be heated and illuminated.

In many ways, Ford's 90-year-old principles sound much like those now espoused by that icon of lean production, Toyota. Oh, that Henry's predecessors had followed his pursuit for the lowest prices and costs through conservation. The ultimate takeaway from Ford's history is to continually improve your use of scarce resources whatever form those resources take. Companies that focus on their environmental footprint can also gain benefits in labor productivity and other cost reductions.

Ford could have invented the conservation hierarchy presented in part one of our Going Green series. Don't forget it:

  • Re-imagine re-conceive the consumer's real needs
  • Redesign revamp the product and processes needed to create it
  • Reduce minimize the amount of resources required
  • Reuse utilize the byproducts
  • Recycle recycle the rest

Bottom Line: History teaches us that the wood products industry is not new to the environmental movement. In fact, wood producers and users were green before this label became politically correct. Be part of this tradition. It's the smart and the right thing to do.

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