Sustainability Star: Toyota is going places few companies have been before

This past July, Toyota officially opened its new, 100-acre North American headquarters in Plano, Texas. Cutting the ribbon on such a groundbreaking, 3-years-in-the-making corporate sustainability success story would be reason enough for most companies to celebrate. But the folks at Toyota are just as energized by the many sustainable design principles they’ve incorporated into their state-of-the-art campus.

After speaking with two team members who played critical roles in bringing Toyota’s sustainable design vision to life, it’s easy to understand what all the excitement is about. David Absher is Senior Manager of Environmental Sustainability, and Mark Yamauchi is Environmental Sustainability Manager—both at Toyota North America.

A history of energy management and sustainability

Between the two of them, David and Mark have more than 60 years of experience at Toyota. In that time, they’ve seen the company come to be a sustainability leader not only in the automotive industry, but beyond it too. While other companies have been making large-scale commitments to sustainability in recent years, both men say that Toyota’s history of energy management and environmental awareness goes back at least several decades—if not all the way to the company’s origins in Japan. In fact, Mark says he sees sustainability as a fundamental belief at Toyota, one threaded directly through from the company’s core principles of respect for people and continuous improvement.

Setting a course for change with the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050

Before discussing the specifics of what Toyota has accomplished in Plano, both David and Mark were quick to mention that the seeds of success in their new headquarters were planted with the Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050, announced in 2015. This rigorous, goal-setting manifesto—covering 6 specific environmental challenges ranging from water usage optimization to CO2 emission elimination across all its operations by the year 2050—inspired much of the planning involved in the construction of Toyota’s North American headquarters. With those marching orders delivered, they say, the road to sustainable design at the Plano campus was firmly (and unequivocally) laid.

Finding innovative ways to capture, store and use water

For both men, one of the most exciting aspects of Toyota’s new North American headquarters is the innovative way they’re optimizing water usage—not coincidentally a key goal of the company’s Environmental Challenge 2050. This includes an advanced rainwater capture system able to store more than 400,000 gallons of water at a time—and save Toyota more than 13 million gallons of potable water every year.

In addition, the entire Plano campus is landscaped with Texas-native, drought-resistant plants that don’t require the heavy amounts of water, chemical treatment or ongoing maintenance that non-indigenous plantings would. For David, efforts like these aren’t just good for the planet, they also make solid financial sense. He estimates the campus’s rainwater-capture system alone will save the company more than $650,000 per year in water usage and discharge costs.

Reducing emissions onsite, with a goal of absolute zero in the years to come

Solar panel array generates renewable energyAnother cornerstone of Toyota’s commitment to sustainability in their new Plano campus is determining how to reduce emissions on the way to eliminating them entirely—as well as the company’s reliance on non-renewable forms of energy. The 8.8-megawatt array of PV (photovoltaic) solar panels—installed on top of the campus’s four parking structures—is the largest commercial solar system in the state of Texas. It’s capable of generating 33% of the electricity used at the site, and Mark expects the system will generate zero-emission power for the company over the next 30-plus years.

Today, Toyota has procured Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to offset the carbon footprint from the balance of electricity they’re buying from the grid to power the new campus. Looking forward, the team is analyzing other opportunities to generate more of their own renewable energy onsite. It’s their way of becoming even more energy independent, and all part of the company’s commitment to achieve zero emissions across the organization by 2050.

Bringing the vision to life and learning important lessons along the way

So, how did Toyota do it? And what challenges did the team face along the way? While David and Mark were both clear that the entire organization “bought in” on sustainability from the very beginning—and certainly after Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz publicly announced the company would be building a “state-of-the-art, environmentally sustainable campus” in Plano—they did experience a few hiccups in bringing their vision to life.

Looking back, the men agree that having a seat at the table from the outset of the project—as RFPs were gathered and initial project scopes presented—was critical to its success. Finding, engaging and educating stakeholders and sustainability champions at every level of the organization were also key. As David explained, “Those folks then become your force multiplier.” In retrospect, he says they could have done even more of that relationship building from the very beginning.

Although there were certainly bumps along the way, David says that the larger team at Toyota never lost sight of its original goals. For them, making corporate sustainability a priority was never the issue: It was more a matter of seeing how much could be done within the existing constraints. Mark agrees, saying that bringing the team’s vision to life was always a deductive proposition—meaning they started big and removed only what they later deemed beyond scope or budget. “We never looked at sustainability as an add-on,” says Mark. “From the outset, we encouraged our architect and developers to bring as many great ideas to the table as possible. We wanted everyone to be thinking above and beyond when it came to the benefits of sustainability. And it really paid off.”

Benefits that go far beyond the property lines

Both men say that a commitment to a sustainability strategy and the statement it makes to those inside and outside the company can’t be underestimated. “In my mind, it’s what helps make Toyota a preferred product,” says David. “And we believe it’s what makes us a preferred employer, too—especially among today’s younger generation of workers. These young people are asking the right questions about the companies they work for; questions that, quite frankly, people of my generation just weren’t asking.”

And while David and Mark say they’re proud of the recognition that Toyota is currently getting for its achievements in Plano, they’re even more excited by what’s to come—and the innovation the company has already inspired with others. “We’re never satisfied,” says Mark. “We always think we can go further—and help others in our community do the same. For instance, we’re currently working with developers in the Dallas area who have seen what we’ve done in Plano and now want to bring more sustainable design practices into their own buildings. That’s awesome to see and be a part of.”

Looking ahead, inspiring others, and doing more

In the months and years to come, Toyota North America plans to apply much of the success it’s achieved and lessons it’s learned to other sites, including a new plant now under construction in Mexico. And even take them a step further. David says, “I’m particularly happy that the habitat and water plan we put in place here in Plano is going to be a model for our facilities moving forward. And maybe even a model for other companies. That’s why we’re actively inviting others to come see how it all works, and get a first-hand look at what the benefits are.” Mark adds, “As we continue to extend our commitment to continuous improvement out into the world, I’m excited to be a part of where Toyota goes from here.”


Related links:

Top Companies Choosing Solar

How to Achieve Your Corporate Goal With Solar

7 types of renewable energy to support commercial sustainability

This post originally appeared on the SunPower Business Feed.


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