Johnson family scion urges business, government and consumers to work together to save environment

The CEO of a global manufacturer of consumer chemicals warned that without "disruptive" rather than incremental changes in the way companies do business and governments lead, the planet is doomed.

"We need disruptive leadership from all sectors: business, government and individuals," said H. Fisk Johnson '79, chairman of SC Johnson, in the 28th annual Hatfield Lecture Oct. 22. He spoke to a full house at Statler Auditorium on "A Crisis of Consumption."

Johnson is the fifth-generation leader of the family-controlled firm, formerly known as SC Johnson Wax, which he said has embraced environmentally sustainable business practices for decades in its production of such brands as Pledge, Windex and Glade, which are sold in 150 countries.

Johnson, who holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and physics, an M.Eng., an M.S. in physics, an MBA and a Ph.D. in applied physics, is one of only two people in Cornell's 144-year history to earn five degrees. "Cornell is a place I loved so much I stayed here for 10 years," he said.

"It's important to acknowledge that there are really two different groups of people in the world," Johnson said of developing and developed nations. "One society consumes to live, another lives to consume." But "We can hardly ask a group of people who are scratching out a subsistence living to take a step backward in consumption. It's equally unreasonable to expect people living in the developed world to take a step backward."

With revenues of more than $8 billion and 12,000 employees, SC Johnson has introduced sustainable products, such as refill pouches of cleaning products that can be poured into reusable bottles, that sell in Europe and Asia but are rejected by U.S. consumers.

"Most consumers do not place an inherent value on the environment, and our free-market system does not capture environmental costs in the price of goods," Johnson said. Yet if businesses, consumers and governments "continue to proceed down the path that we're going down where we do not value the environment, we run out of time and resources."

"As the lowest-income people on the planet aspire to a Western standard of living and the world's middle class triples by 2030, we will significantly exceed our planet's capacity to sustain ourselves," Johnson said.

Among many pro-environment measures, Johnson said his company powers its largest factory with methane gas, uses waste palm oil shells as a primary energy source in its Indonesian factory and powers its largest European manufacturing plant and Bay City, Mich., plant with wind energy.

But even the actions of good corporate citizens and recycling by individuals amount to "incrementalist" progress when much more drastic -- "disruptive" is his term -- action is called for, Johnson said. "Historically, government has regulated here and there but has done little to lean on the issue [sustainability]," he said.

"Even if every company on Earth emulated the best behavior of the biggest and best companies out there, I don't believe it would be enough," Johnson said. "Here's the challenge: What do you do when you reach a point where making needed environmental improvements begins to affect customer satisfaction or cost?"

When SC Johnson removed chlorine from Saran Wrap, it lost market share. "Today this product, which has been around since my childhood and which was once a staple of our company, is almost gone," Johnson said. "We still feel strongly that this was the right decision, and that's actually not the only decision like that that we've made with consequences like that.

"There are only so many of those decisions that you can make before you put yourself completely out of business."

Government must provide leadership on the issue, said Johnson, noting the French government's embrace of nuclear power after the 1970s energy crisis and Brazil's energy independence, which comes from reliance on renewable and nonrenewable energy sources.

"As a rather fervent capitalist, I struggle a bit on this one," Johnson said. "But honestly I think that government has to provide a greater role in organizing consumers, business and civil society around a few critical priorities. ... We have to decide what's important, what we're willing to live with and what are the important issues that we have to solve."

"Unless government stands up and says something is going to be a priority, and it removes roadblocks and provides incentives … and engages everyone -- businesses, the electric companies and consumers -- we're not going to move quickly enough."

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Claudia Wheatley