In latest environmental report, Honda investigates supply chain, materials, emissions

Honda's new North American Environmental Report reveals what it's doing for sustainability with its products, operations and facilities.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Japanese automaker Honda on Monday released its 2010 North American Environmental Report, and it appears that the company is on track with its goals, diving into the supple chain to investigate first-tier suppliers and the materials they use, ensuring better fuel efficiency for its products and reducing emissions, waste and water use for the year.

The company reported success in its attempts to employ hybrid technology to boost the fuel efficiency of its vehicles, with the new CR-Z, Civic Hybrid and several Acura models on deck. Meanwhile, the company's experiments with natural gas -- the Civic GX -- and fuel cells -- the FCX Clarity -- continue as it searches for a better way to power vehicles.

There's also a real focus is on battery electric vehicles. Honda is eyeing 2012 as its milestone year for the technology, and in preparation, it has landed deals to supply Google and Stanford University customers with the cars.

But it's not just the end of the energy pipeline in which Honda is interested, and the company has begun operating a prototype thin film solar hydrogen station in Los Angeles to see how it can create a "carbon neutral" infrastructure for EVs.

In operations, the company is also reducing its footprint, and is on track with its goal to make all 14 of its North American plants zero waste to landfill by the start of the next fiscal year. (Eight of 14 were on board by March 2010.)

Here's a laundry list of what Honda is focusing on:

  • Product fuel economy
  • Product materials and substances (lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury, PBDEs, PFOs, PVC)
  • Product design for recyclability
  • Sales of alternative-fuel vehicles
  • Natural resource conservation
  • Manufacturing energy efficiency
  • Waste and toxic emissions reduction
  • Environmentally responsible supply chain practices
  • Company recycling
  • Company waste, energy and emissions reduction
  • LEED Green Building certification
  • Environmental reporting

Honda's North American operations are on track with most of these, but there are a few that have fallen behind. Among them is reducing the energy efficiency of its manufacturing operations. While its Power Equipment business achieved this goal, falling 12.9 percent year-over-year, the emissions for its Powersports and Automobiles units actually rose -- 64.8 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

Nevertheless, Honda's report is a classic example of efficiency making financial sense. Here's a rundown of how it's pursuing its goals:

Powertrain: Hybrid electric cars continue their march into the Honda portfolio. Meanwhile, the company is pushing its i-DTEC diesel tech in Europe, where prices for that fuel are lower than gasoline. Looking more toward the future, Honda's working on plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles for 2012. It's also experimenting with hydrogen fuel cell EVs in a limited fashion.

Design: Honda is pushing lightweighting for its vehicles, a direct contrast to the creeping curb weights of most modern cars, by using high-strength steel and aluminum in the car's frame. It's also working with aerodynamics in an attempt to reduce the size of the vehicle's frontal area and thus drag.

Fuels: Honda's working with natural gas (Civic GX to fleet customers), biofuels (all Honda and Acura cars run on E10 ethanol, with sights set on E15 or E20) and hydrogen, as connected to the smart grid.

Buildings: Honda is working with Climate Energy to investigate home heat and power cogeneration systems for homes in cold weather states. It's also looking at its own facilities, installing equipment with "less variability" and that can easily be shut down when not in use, as well as reviewing lighting, compressed air and painting operations for efficiency. Finally, it's going LEED, with nine certified facilities.

Logistics: Honda's pushing out diesel-electric hybrid trucks to move its parts and using "route tracking" tech to direct them more efficiently. It has also optimized the volume of material carried in a trailer to cut down on total miles traveled.

Every little bit adds up, too. Honda was just as sure to mention that it recycles airbags as that it replaced 603 printers, 204 fax machines and 122 copiers with 247 energy-efficient multifunction machines, reducing energy use by 41 percent.

Not bad for a business that employs 30,000 people, receives $15.3 billion in capital investment and moves more than $13.3 billion in parts and materials from more than 580 local suppliers.

The one question I was left with: how much more can it do as the auto (and manufacturing) industry moves in lockstep? For example, its certification of first-tier suppliers is nice, but it barely scratches the surface. But many automakers use the same suppliers. Pressure from all sides could help every automaker get more answers and insight into what goes into its products.

But that's the sustainability game -- asking one question turns into two, then four, then eight. Until then, it seems Honda will get the most bang-for-its-buck from optimizing its extensive operations.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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