Traditional companies embrace sustainability

Inside View - April 2010

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Prominent companies from four traditional Virginia industries — coal, tobacco, paper and pork — are finding it’s good to be green.

In our third annual green issue, Nicole Anderson Ellis examines the environmental evolution of Alpha Natural Resources, Altria Group, MeadWestvaco and Smithfield Foods. Companies like them throughout the country are embracing sustainable business practices for many reasons, but one of the most important is the shifting expectations of the public. Customers and potential employees increasingly want American companies to be sensitive to the environment.

The change in corporate practices is perhaps most dramatic at Smithfield Foods. Once the state’s most fined polluter, the company won a 2009 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award. Altria, another much-maligned company, also won a Governor’s Award last year.

In addition to these four corporations, we take a quick look at the green practices and initiatives of seven other major Virginia companies.

Elsewhere in this issue, Garry Kranz finds that federal stimulus funds are boosting efforts in Virginia to develop green energy. Grants worth nearly $83 million will be used in projects that promote efficiency and energy systems that use renewable sources.
While these energy resources are being developed, the movement toward sustainable building practices in Virginia appears to have reached a critical mass. M.J. McAteer reports that, by the end of last year, Virginia had 135 buildings certified under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Another 1,047 projects are in the pipeline.

Environmental issues are fashionable even in Richmond, despite the capital city’s reputation as a conservative, button-down town.  Lee Graves reports that residents, officials and corporate leaders increasingly see clean technology, renewable energy and sustainable development as paths toward greener pastures. Meanwhile, lawyer Tom Bowden pedals nine miles to work at his downtown Richmond office.

Finally, our green issue interview is with Kevin Burke, director of practice for William McDonough + Partners, a Charlottesville-based architecture firm with offices in San Francisco and Amsterdam. Burke explains the principles of the Cradle to Cradle concept, in which all materials are either reused or returned to the soil at the end of a product’s useful life.

Cradle to Cradle takes sustainable practices to a new dimension. It may mark the path that Virginia companies in coal, tobacco, paper and pork eventually follow.

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