Sustainable Community Forum

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Sustainable Community Forum

Racine, Wisconsin
July 29, 1996
Samuel C. Johnson

Opening Remarks:

Good morning and welcome. I'm Sam Johnson.

The other day I was having a Kewpee attack and so I went in to get a burger. (For those of you from out of town, Kewpee hamburgers are the best, and have been served in downtown Racine ever since I was in grade school here…and that's an awfully long time ago) So I stepped up to the counter and said, “Two with just pickles, a vanilla shake and some fries.

The person behind the counter said, "You know, you look just like Sam Johnson."

"Really," I said.

"I bet a lot of people tell you that."

“That's true," I said.

"You hate it, don't you?"

Thank you for coming to Racine and particularly thanks to the members and participants in the President's Council for joining us.

As your agendas indicate, we will have a panel discussion this morning, (Not about an endangered hamburger shop, which may have to be moved to make room for a parking lot,) but about the topic of sustainable development and sustainable communities.

Racine is a remarkable community, and it is what it is, because of the many remarkable initiatives it has taken over the years.

And you are a remarkable group of people because you represent every segment of the leadership in Racine.

As I sat on the President's Council, it became obvious to me that some of the things that we learned in more than 3 and 1/2 years of work might be useful to us in this room, and that Racine might become part of an effort called sustainable communities.

John Ehrmann has been the official moderator of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development since the beginning, and has graciously agreed to facilitate our discussion this morning.

John is Executive Vice President of The Keystone Center, a nonprofit organization involved in the advancement of education, science and public policy debate.

Racine, Wisconsin July 29, 1996

Samuel C. Johnson

Panel Remarks:

This last 4th of July, our country celebrated its 220th birthday. As the fireworks went off, I realized that our company has been around for half that time – 110 years.

Today, after the work of five generations of Johnson people, the Johnson Wax flag is planted in 50 countries around the world. Since few businesses have been around this long, and very few have grown as much as we have, people are always asking

"Sam, how do you do it?" (I hope nobody here thinks that I've been around for the whole time.)

Well, the answer is really pretty simple. We've kept focused on people's needs and then done our darndest to meet them.

And just what is it people need? The truth is, they need lots of things. For one, people need clean and healthy homes, so we provide the best products to make them that way.

For another, people need good jobs, and a clean, safe place to work so they can take care of their families – so we do that.

And people need communities where the air, land and water is clean and healthy where opportunities are alive for everyone and where we are a good neighbor by not throwing our trash into someone else's yard, and we do what we can to make our hometowns better places to live.

Some of my fellow CEOs laugh at this. They ask: "How can you do all that, and still make money, Sam?" My answer to them is: "We make money because we do all that."

When we meet people's needs, we build credibility and trust with them. When they trust us, they want to buy our products, they want to work for us and, they want us as neighbors.

People's needs haven't changed all that much since we opened our doors. What has changed is that over the years, we've come to realize more than ever before, that people's needs for good jobs, clean homes, and healthy communities are linked together.

And, when our business decisions consider all these needs in concert with the other – guess what? Our financial performance improves.

For example, over the past five years we cut waste coming out of our plants nearly in half. We reduced our packaging by over 25 percent, and took one-sixth of the solvents out of our product formulas.

During that same time period, our production grew 50 percent. We created superior products using less material, and reduced waste, risk and cost to our operation, enabling us to have more to invest in growing our businesses and growing our local communities.

We have to do more of this because the decisions we make today have a significant impact on what we'll be able to do tomorrow. Show me a person who understands the wise use of resources capital, labor and the environment and I'll show you a business leader of the future. Then, show me a person who understands the need to invest in those resources, and I'll show you a successful business leader of the future.

The PCSD [President’s Council on Sustainable Development] experience reinforced for me that if the company my great grandfather started back in 1886 was going to compete, and be successful for another 110 years, then every one of our businesses needed to consider the growing list of people's environmental, economic, and social needs.

You know, when you get as old as me, you start believing you have all the answers. I wish I did – but, I don't. My wife, Gene, can attest to that. The truth is, she's got all the answers, and one per family is all you need.

At first, each of us on the President's Council probably thought we had all the answers on how to make this sustainable development thing happen. I mean, here were successful business people, the best of the brightest in government, leaders of the most prestigious environmental groups, and civic leaders whoes lives were committed to making opportunity and prosperity a reality for every American.

Well, after the first meeting, we weren't too sure we had all the answers. After the second meeting, we thought we might have some. By the third meeting, we were convinced we didn't have any.

That was an important moment because it was then that we started listening to one another, learning from one another and collaborating with one another, on finding better ways to run our businesses, better ways to make policy, better ways to provide opportunity and better ways to make a better world for our kids to inherit.

We began to realize that collectively we were able to do more than any one member or any one constituency could achieve in moving sustainability off the drawing board.

We visited communities around the country who had discovered the same thing as we did – that the diversity of perspective at the table was our greatest asset.

We could look at barriers to sustainable development—and there are plenty of them from – from every angle. And, when we looked hard enough together, we began to see more opportunities than challenges. The opportunity I found particularly important as a businessman is for government to start adopting economic and environmental policies that put incentives where our objectives are.

One thing I do know is that if you want someone to do something, reward them when they do. "Regulatory reform" has been a hot topic in Washington and the PCSD agreed that fundamental regulatory reform is necessary to make current government systems less costly for cities, states and the nation.

What we want to see is a performance-based environmental regulatory system with built-in flexibility so industry can cut more pollution at less cost than the current command-and-control, technology-prescribed regulations allow.

What we're talking about here is making sure government spends our hard-earned tax dollars doing things, which do the most good for the environment.

For example, if we want industry to be what some call the "technological engine of change for sustainable development" then government should set pollution targets and let American industry do what it does best to innovate and find the best way of getting rid of the pollution.

And, if we really want to protect jobs and the environment, then let's have a shift in tax policies.

If we want businesses to go beyond mere compliance with environmental rules, then why not give them a tax incentive if they do?

Let's shift away from taxing the good of society, income, savings, investment and start taxing what we want less of, like pollution and waste. Sounds impossible I guess, but it is one of the far-reaching recommendations of the PCSD.

No matter whether any of these recommendations are implemented, Johnson Wax will continue to do its share. We'll cut more waste from our products and plants, and reduce our energy usage in the process. We'll be choosing ingredients and packaging that are safer, less costly and less wasteful. And, we'll continue to be active in helping to make our communities better places to live.

What does all this mean for Racine? Well, when I was a kid, I think my friends and I rode our bikes on every street in town. We were pretty carefree in those days and in those days, our parents didn't worry about our safety, about whether we could get a good education or good health care, or whether we'd be able to get a job when we grew up. I love this town. I want to see carefree kids again and parents with hope, not worry, in their eyes. And that's what companies like mine can help make happen. That's what sustainable development can bring to Racine.

Racine, Wisconsin

July 29, 1996

Samuel C. Johnson

Closing Remarks:

Thank you John, Dianne, Tony, Ed, and of course, John Ehrmann for coming to Racine. You have helped us start a process that could be very important for our community and communities like ours around the country.

All [audience] of us thank you.

What happens next for Racine is really up to all the rest of us here today.

We know there are useful models of success in other towns like Chattanooga, Seattle, Memphis, but we will have to figure out what is right for Racine and get moving.

Let's start by drawing from the best ideas we come up with in our discussion groups, and not be afraid to adopt good ideas from other places. Then, let's make it happen.