NOVI, Mich.—Sustainability is a hot-button issue for a lot of auto makers and suppliers today, but for Ford Motor Co.'s Debbie Mielewski, it's a topic that is deeply rooted in her livelihood and entrenched in her everyday habits.
As the senior technical leader of materials sustainability for the Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker, Mielewski continues to pioneer the development of sustainable plastics and composites for automotive applications, boosting Ford's use of soy-based polyurethane foam and other unconventional filler materials such as coffee chaff and rice hulls.
But it was during the Society of Plastics Engineers' 18th annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition that she expressed to attendees just how deeply affected she is by sustainability goals, or the lack thereof, set not only by the automotive industry but also by government leaders around the world.
"Our group had a giant party the day the Paris climate agreement was signed, and I felt like that was a giant step forward," Mielewski said during a Sept. 7 panel discussion. "When (the U.S.) pulled out of the Paris agreement, I could barely get out of bed to go to work."
For Mielewski, as an employee of a global auto maker and a human being trying to survive another day on planet Earth, it was a reminder for her that corporations—both on their own and together as part of an influential industry—need to focus on sustainability efforts without necessarily relying on government regulation for a nudge in the right direction.
"Some days, it's hard to get out of bed and look 'that green thing' in the face because people are so distracted with other things, but let me tell you, investing 20 years in this, it is going to be a big part of our future," she said. "Big corporations have to take some responsibility."
Mielewski, who has grown tired of the "if it's cheaper and it's environmental, we'll do it" triple-bottom-line response, asked bluntly, "What's your corporate commitment to sustainability?"
Walking the walk
Jay Olson, global manager of materials engineering and technology at agricultural, construction and forestry equipment maker Deere & Co., said this year the company has committed to pursuing product sustainability metrics.
In 2007, the company partnered with Ford on putting the soy-based polyurethane foams to use in the seatbacks, seat cushions, armrests and headrests of John Deere equipment.
"Our customers are linked to the land, linked to the soil," Olson said. "They're stewards of the land, and so our company has naturally been sustainable in that way for many years."
At General Motors Co., Lauren Smith, a panelist for the discussion and the automaker's project manager of global sustainability initiatives, said waste is viewed as "simply a resource out of place."
"We're conscious of our impact that we have on the environment and we also recognize that our output streams have potential for reuse," she said. "This is why we're looking at an aggressive goal to be a leading auto manufacturer in reducing our waste and having zero waste come from our sites and not going into landfills."