What 50 Years of Responsibility Looks Like: Q&A with Whirlpool’s Sustainability Head

Whirlpool Corporation announced earlier this month that 2019 is the 50th anniversary of its sustainability commitment. As far back as 1969, the company’s CEO talked about how programs to reduce Whirlpool’s impact on the environment had already proven to be a smart investment in the company’s future.

We caught up with Whirlpool’s global sustainability director, Ron Voglewede, to get his take on how sustainability has evolved over the last five decades.

Environmental Leader: How have the sustainability challenges facing Whirlpool changed in the past 50 years? 

Ron Voglewede: For Whirlpool, I have witnessed about half of the changes over the last 50 years personally.  What has changed the most is the pace of innovation.

Whirlpool has had over five major changes in its history from starting as a single automated washer company, to a full line of major appliances, adding small appliances, going global, and now becoming digitized. As technology continues its exponential growth, companies – Whirlpool included – have had to adapt. One can be overwhelmed by data and the speed of new advances or we can harness them and understand [their place] in how to run the company and apply it to products and services.

Whirlpool is embracing the new digital world, but in a purposeful way. Understanding the value of where technology [has] positive impacts for our planet and our society is key. As seen in many media reports today, we can see where technology can have a very dramatic negative impact on people and the planet, from online bullying to large energy use by server farms. Corporations have the obligation and responsibility to use technology to benefit people, as those are the companies that will pass the test of time (108 years in our case).

That is because we take into account, at every stage of development, the impacts our plants and products have on people, the planet, and our long term profitability. For example, we harness wind energy directly in plants, significantly lowering our emissions, but we also donate STEM scholarships to local students to have opportunities to study science and technology as a career. It is understanding that balance that is key to making positive impacts, doing the right things, the right way.

Providing for people and the planet is how companies will continue to have a license to operate in the future.

EL: What are the challenges companies are facing today in terms of sustainability? 

RV: There are two key challenges to sustainability today. First is transparency and disclosure. Companies are being asked by all stakeholders not just what you do, but how you do it. It is a matter of understanding if your brand and company values match your stakeholders.

Disclosure is a difficult topic, as it requires data and baselines, measures and metrics, and a clear understanding of your goals and outcomes. That data is just a starting point. Companies need to drive positive outcomes and establish the initiatives that will bring about the triple bottom line. Transparency is not just about the good, but [about] where you fall short and need to continue to look for improvement. It is that self awareness – that we can and [must] be better for people and the planet – that is key.

Why companies, you may ask? If not us, then who? Who better to pull from our diversity and talents of our employees? Or to deliver innovation?

In fact, companies need to drive innovation into sustainability, which is the second key challenge. Most sustainability professionals have come from risk, compliance, legal or communications. Rarely do you find one whose background has been innovation and starting new businesses. Whirlpool’s approach, not just to sustainability, has been to innovate around improving lives. Our products have saved hours of household chores and turned some chores into joy and lasting experiences like sharing family recipes with kids and cooking together.

I have spent more than two decades inventing new ways to deliver new products and services. We have to! And here at Whirlpool, we have proved that improving lives and delivering great products and services are not mutually exclusive to being good stewards to our planet.

EL: What other thoughts do you have about the state of sustainability today?

RV: People should not compromise. They should expect us to deliver on our promise that our founders set out to achieve: to improve lives and be stewards of the planet, because that is good business.

Our CEO in 1969 said it best in a letter to shareholders (yes, investors!): “…1969 saw continuation of determined efforts on the part of Whirlpool…to make meaningful contributions to the improvement of the social climate in the communities where our facilities are located. We have long held that no business can separate itself from the affairs and problems of the society of which it is a part and hope to grow and prosper. During the year, measurable progress in longstanding company-sponsored programs to reduce the impact on the environment, alleviate such community problems as minority unemployment, inadequate housing, and limited educational opportunities served to further substantiate our belief that the investment of company resources in such activities is both effective and a worthwhile investment in the future.”

[As] our COO stated in the 1980s, “There is no right way to do the wrong thing,” to which I have added, “we are going to do the right things the right way.”

The fourth annual Environmental Leader & Energy Manager Conference takes place May 13 – 15, 2019 in Denver. Learn more here.

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