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Brown goes green

Kai Ryssdal: UPS starts its busiest week of the year today: 120 million packages will be send hither and yon by Friday. And thanks to the miracles of modern technology, UPS knows not just where each parcel is and when it's gonna get where it's going, it also tracks the pollution that comes with flying and driving our gifts all over the place.

That data gets bundled up and sent straight to the CSO -- the UPS Chief Sustainability Officer. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh went to see how brown is doing on being green.


Eve Troeh: Just before 9 a.m. at a Los Angeles warehouse, hundreds of drivers in brown pants load their big brown trucks with thousands of brown cardboard boxes.

Employee: Let's go, people, let's go!

A million concerns could top the daily driver meeting on a hectic day like this. But the first item on today's agenda: gas.

Meeting leader: Good morning. Today, we're going to be talking about fuel conservation and why it matters.

Don't let the truck idle while you deliver a package; avoid left turns. Those aren't just tips. They're company policy.

UPS saved 475,000 gallons of fuel last year, through better driving. And some trucks help save more.

Al Hijar: OK, well my name is Al Hijar, I drive the new hybrid electric vehicle. 'Oh you're one of the lucky ones,' they tell me all the time. Everybody wants one.

He says they make work easier.

Hijar: I've been driving for 34 years with UPS. My previous package car I used to gas up every week, and now I gas up once a month.

That's the kind of detailed feedback another UPS old-timer wants to hear.

Scott Wicker: Worked for UPS 34 years.

Scott Wicker became the first Chief Sustainability Officer at UPS this past March.

Wicker: Started as a loader/unloader; during that time I was going to school to become an engineer.

He worked his way up through the engineering department. That's where UPS has always handled environmental compliance. But Wicker's new job goes well beyond just following the law. In making the new CSO position, the company's asked him push boundaries, pollute less and get greener without losing money.

Take UPS' 100,000 delivery trucks.

Wicker: As much as we'd like to convert that fleet tomorrow to all alternative fuel vehicles and lessen our emissions, they're typically about twice the cost.

He works with automakers to narrow the price gap on new technology, from hydrogen fuel cells to lighter trucks made of plastic. And he hunts for deals, buying hybrids or biofuels in states and countries with incentives. It's a race because UPS has a goal: to get 20 percent more fuel-efficient by the end of the decade. Wicker says government help is crucial.

Wicker: So we've mapped out how to get there, and looking at these types of projects realizing that if we can't find a grant to match up with that there's no way we're going to be able to do it.

Fuel is the biggest environmental issue for UPS, and a huge business cost. But a CSO doesn't just save the company money. Wicker serves as a go-between with environmental groups. He has to measure things like the company's carbon pollution, water and energy use, and then explain how UPS is shrinking all those footprints in an annual sustainability report.

Wicker: If you want the detail, you click and go into the detail.

Lynette McIntire: Exactly, exactly.

Communications Director Lynette McIntire helps decide what goes in.

McIntire: Data or stories or interviews or ideas. All of it goes into this report. It becomes the way be debate issues and decide what we're going to do going forward.

There's a lot to debate. Sustainability is a wild west of consultants, certifications and tough questions from investors, customers and UPS' own employees.

Ellen Weinreb is a corporate sustainability recruiter.

Ellen Weinreb: Our discipline has no road map to follow.

In a recent survey she found just 29 chief sustainability officers in the U.S. They're veteran corporate leaders, but they told Weinreb they feel like newbies.

Weinreb: The sustainability role is new. It's a new function, and everybody is figuring out what that means for them at that company.

Including Scott Wicker at UPS.

Wicker: You question yourself, what does it take to be good? You know, how far do I have to go, what's good enough?

With few global standards and almost no regulation, he says it's hard to know where to set the goal posts. But now that sustainability is embedded in company structure, it's part of the corporate mission to figure it out.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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