The TH Interview: The Home Depot's Green Man, Ron Jarvis (Part 2)



In the second part of our in-depth interview with The Home Depot's green point man, Ron Jarvis speaks about sustainable forestry, transportation's deep footprint, and the evolution of the big box.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or listen/right-click to download. Check out part 1 of the Ron Jarvis interview here.

TreeHugger: So, there's obviously a strong impetus here to move toward a more ecologically sensitive way of doing business. Is there a clear picture of what a truly sustainable business of your sort would look like? What would be an archetypal business that could be truly sustainable in the sense that it's not liquidating the assets that future generations will be relying on?

Ron Jarvis: There are two ways that I look at that. There's the utopian dream, where products are manufactured at a very local level from very low impact products and shipped a very short distance to the homeowner. That is the most sustainable market that we can ever find. But today there are a lot of tradeoffs that have to take place.For example, you may find a product that is manufactured with fewer chemicals but is manufactured in Vietnam or China. Then when you ship that to the U.S., the carbon footprint goes up dramatically. Compare this to manufacturing a product in the U.S. which may have a few more chemicals but much less of a transportation distance to get the product from the manufacturing facilities to the customer.

So, we know that utopia is getting the right manufacturers at the right place so the carbon footprint is very, very small. Knowing that it's probably going to be a few years before we get something like that, we know that we have to go in and look at each area and each link in the chain, as far as supply chain goes, and each year try to lessen that impact.

TreeHugger: Do you see the big box model as something that's workable for the future or is that something that has the possibility to be questioned or reevaluated?

Ron: I think that as the consumer evolves, that as we evolved into a big box, there are definitely opportunities for us to evolve out of the big box.

But part of that's going to have to do with the efficiencies of a big box. If you have a big box that is sustainably built, it has the right energy efficiency measures put into it, then you may have a big box that has less of an environmental footprint than four small boxes. So, that's what we have to look at.

We also have to look at what it's going to do to the consumer buying patterns; make sure that we're in tune or ahead of that, so as they move and evolve into different types of shopping and buying, that we have sustainable models that they can move into.

I think that as the consumer evolves, that as we evolved into a big box, there are definitely opportunities for us to evolve out of the big box.

TreeHugger: You were saying that a lot of your background comes from trying to demystify the wood supply chain and figure out more responsible ways of sourcing wood and lumber. Certainly that's got to be a very large portion of what you sell. Tell me about The Home Depot's policies and where you guys stand now as far as forestry and lumber sourcing.

Ron: Well, we have a couple of different policies that tie in the things that we consider to be extremely important. One of those is making sure that when it comes to wood we purchase from companies that practice sustainable forestry. It’s also important to understand the different issues that are involved in the world's forests today.

We said we were going to take two parallel paths. The first one was to go in and count everything in the store that has wood in it. And at first pass, we came up with 150 items, because it was the obvious stuff: it was a piece of plywood, it was a 2x4, it was a door, it was a window.

But then, I said, ‘this isn't quite right.’ Let's go back into the store and look at the components that are manufactured out of wood that may be covered up. I went into the ceiling fan aisle and I grabbed a plastic ceiling fan blade and broke it over on my knee. Inside it was all wood. And so I said, where does this come from? And we didn't have the answer to that. So, we moved from about 150 to about 8,000 items in the store that were made out of wood.

So the first path was to find every product that had wood somewhere inside of it. The second was to go out and study every country and every region of the world, including the species that are grown in those regions, to find out which ones have deforestation, which ones have aforestation, and which ones have sustainable forests where they're supplying product to the world, but they're re-growing their forest at the same pace that they're taking it out.

And so it took us about two years to do that. But when we came out of it, we knew where our wood came from. We knew which species were diminishing, which ones we should walk away from, which ones we should run away from, and which ones that we should support with our purchase orders.

TreeHugger: What's a wood that you guys ran away from?

Ron: One of the products that we pulled away from is a species called Merbau that is grown and manufactured in Indonesia and often Papua New Guinea. And we pulled away from that product a couple of years ago. We could not find a clean enough supply chain to guarantee that the product that we were getting was always coming from the sustainable-forestry side of the business. So we walked away from the product, walked away from that species, and walked away from a few of our suppliers.

TreeHugger: So, obviously digging backwards through the supply chain is very important but difficult, and I understand that there are some other metrics being developed to evaluate different kinds of products. And you're working with Scientific Certification Systems to do some due diligence on other suppliers.
How deep does this kind of background check go, and what kinds of products are you putting through the ringer?


Ron: It's twofold. Some of these are what are considered to be no-brainers: where we look at it and it has already been through the process of Energy Star rating, or FSC rating, or OMRI organic rating.

I went into the ceiling fan aisle and I grabbed a plastic ceiling fan blade and broke it over on my knee. Inside it was all wood. And so I said, where does this come from? And we didn't have the answer to that.

Then there are others that are a little bit less clear. And so we will have a company like Scientific Certification Systems come in, and they will go to the supplier, look at how the supplier manufactures the product, look at the products that are being used to manufacture the product, and come back to us and say either one of three things: 1) It's everything they say it is, we have enough information, it can be considered to be a green product or Eco Options product. 2) It's not what we think it is and do not recommend it for Eco Options. Or 3) It looks like it's the right thing to do but there could be better alternatives out there, and suggest that we do a deep life cycle analysis on the product to make sure that this is the right product for Eco Options.

TreeHugger: PVC is certainly understood to be a toxic product that doesn't have many recycling options. And at the same time it seems to be ubiquitous throughout the world of building materials: it's in everything. What's The Home Depot’s stance on PVC? It must be a big conundrum for you guys.

Ron: Well, we've been reviewing PVC and looking at possible alternatives. But we also know that with every product group we go into, it has to be a market-based solution. If we say today we're going to stop selling any product, and the competition and the consumer still want that product, then the only thing that'll happen is we'd just lose a tremendous amount of business.

What we have to do is look for alternatives inside our different categories and lean on the industry and lean on other research and development groups to help us help the suppliers come up with better alternatives.

If we say today we're going to stop selling any product, and the competition and the consumer still want that product, then the only thing that'll happen is we'd just lose a tremendous amount of business.

TreeHugger: So, there's no sweeping initiative to try and eliminate PVC from shelves yet?

Ron: No, there's not.

TreeHugger: If you could go in and you could change one thing about the way your supply chain works, if you could just magically alter it with a touch of your finger, what would that be?

Ron: It definitely would be finding something that lessens the transportation impact. Something that does not rely on fossil fuels. That is our biggest impact. If you look at our carbon footprint across the world, it is the reliance on fossil fuels for transportation.

TreeHugger: So, what can be done about that? You can source some more locally, but beyond that, what else can be done to cut down on the amount of miles that go into transporting a product?

Ron: Well, there are a couple of options. I don't think the answer for the world is going to be cutting down on the amount of miles. I think the answer has to be coming up with an alternative for that fossil fuel engine.

For instance, we have the Load and Go, which is a truck that we have at The Home Depot and we rent to our customers. And one of the things that I've been working with our suppliers on for the past few months is coming up with a better way to do that.

Now, the problem is when people rent a load and go, they're going to throw air conditioners, a bundle of lumber, and a lawnmower tractor on the back of that, so they need a certain amount of horsepower to move it around. So we've got to come up with the right kind of engine to supply that type of service to the customer, but also keep the air cleaner.

TreeHugger: So, what are you thinking?

Ron: There's no silver bullet. We're like everyone else; we're talking to different companies and hoping that someone's going to find something soon with the support of everybody to help turn this around.

If we say today we're going to stop selling any product, and the competition and the consumer still want that product, then the only thing that'll happen is we'd just lose a tremendous amount of business.
TreeHugger: Lastly, as you forge ahead with this, it must sometimes feel like you're pushing the boulder up the hill. What keeps you inspired? What keeps you feeling optimistic and pushing ahead with something that's both so important and so challenging?

Ron: One of the things that helps me is that I'm a father of four; the oldest is 17. And I look at what I've been able to do in my home to just lessen my impact, although it's very, very minimal. I haven't moved off the grid. I haven't changed to a hybrid car. But when it comes to buying organic foods, buying organic fertilizers, buying low VOC paints, switching out all my light bulbs from incandescent to CFLs, I was able to do that without changing the comfort style of my life. And if we could just get everybody else to do that, the impact would be tremendous on the carbon footprint of the world.

Just making those small changes would have a big impact. And then after we do that, we could start working on some of the other issues that we find out there.

Tags: Atlanta | Christmas | Energy Efficiency | Forestry | Less Is More | Living With Less | Walmart | Winter

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK