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Sustainability in Practice

Posted 13 December 2012 11:20 PM by Lettemieke Mulder

This is the first in a series of posts that demonstrate First Solar’s efforts to implement its global sustainability program through practices that have a bottom line impact on our business and support the execution of our corporate mission and core values.

“Sustainability” – everyone hears about it – but do we really know what it is? It is a complex term that can be applied to almost every facet of life on earth – from ecological preservation movements to urban development practices and leading edge economic theory. The concept has also risen as a hot topic for global industry, and the renewable energy market in particular. How do large companies find the balance between environmental responsibility and strong economic performance, while at the same time being responsible employers and ethical partners?

Sustainability, essentially, is defined as “a capacity to endure.” In the current business environment, sustainability efforts meld a focus on social and environmental concerns with economic bottom line considerations, meeting the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow.

Often referred to as balancing the “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profit, this approach to Sustainability gives conscientious companies the ability to grow their business while being a good corporate citizen and making environmentally informed business decisions.

First Solar is committed to this triple bottom line model of sustainability. That means we are building into our way of doing business a mindset that allows us to not only achieve growth and profit results for the long term, but also to uphold social contracts with communities and partners, and follow environmentally responsible practices.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental SustainabilityFirst Solar is committed to minimizing the impact of our products and projects across their life cycles, reducing energy pay-back time, minimizing carbon and water footprint, energy consumption, and maintaining responsible product stewardship. We’ve set specific goals and timelines for improvement; for example, we have stated a commitment to a 35 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in our production processes by 2016. Efforts such as this will position First Solar to be a global leader in environmental responsibility in the renewable energy industry.

Social Sustainability

Social SustainabilityFirst Solar strives to be a good neighbor and corporate citizen in the communities where we operate. Local charitable giving boards at each of our manufacturing facilities have budgets to support local non-profit social programs to support the communities where our associates live and work. First Solar also conducts significant outreach in communities where we construct power plants or have other business interest, directing financial and in-kind support to help address local needs. These communities benefit from local job creation and economic activity, as well as First Solar contributions to schools, civic groups and public spaces.

We also aspire for production and administrative environments to achieve best-in-class levels of worker satisfaction and engagement, which are important indicators of a motivated base of associates.

Economic Sustainability

Economic SustainabilityThere is a very real economic value of following sound sustainability practices. Without economic sustainability, there is no company. It wouldn’t matter what we do for the environment or associates and partners, or what charities we give to; because if there is no company, then there will be nothing to donate. The goal of First Solar’s Sustainability mindset is to create a balanced approach to the business decision-making process. As we strive for lower Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), improved financial performance, new market growth and strong investor rankings, we intend to accomplish those objectives with an informed, responsible and accountable approach.

Companies with highly integrated Sustainability philosophies have been shown to increase their value through world-class risk management, full compliance with regulatory requirements as they enter new markets, strengthening the local communities in which they operate, achieving cost reductions and even identifying new business opportunities. Just as important, companies with a clear commitment to Sustainability enjoy sturdy, trustworthy reputations – both in the markets they serve and the communities where they do business.

Combined with the social and environmental benefits, we simply can’t ignore the business case for following Sustainability principles as a matter of practice.

Evolution, Not Revolution

Of course, First Solar isn’t starting from scratch on any of these efforts. For starters, we have a great mission to work with: to create enduring value by enabling a world powered by clean, affordable solar electricity. And we’ve already built into our operating system a fundamentally strong approach to environmental and social responsibility.

Ultimately, First Solar’s intent is not to try to be everything to everyone. The “three pillar” approach means there will always be balances and tradeoffs involved in business decision-making. What is important is to work towards including Sustainability as an absolutely natural part of the process. To do that, we need to make Sustainability work practically itself – by incorporating our values, behaviors and expectations into corporate culture.

Sustainability Pillars

As this way of thinking becomes naturally embedded throughout the business, Sustainability will become more than a fashionable buzzword – the three pillars of Sustainability will combine to create true value that helps First Solar to scale and endure.

First Solar’s Sustainability Steering Committee

First Solar has established a cross-functional Sustainability Steering Committee to execute on Sustainability initiatives. The group includes representatives from Finance, MIS, Investor Relations, Manufacturing, EPC, Project Development, Communications, HR, Technology, Supply Chain, Sustainable Development, Legal, EH&S, Public Affairs, and is co-led by Alex Heard, Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety and Lettemieke Mulder, Vice President of Sustainability.

The group’s charge is to create vision, strategy and structure of a global Sustainability program, integrate a Sustainability culture and principles into First Solar’s business fabric and our business actions.

Every aspect of operations is reviewed and analyzed to assure there is some Sustainability component inherent in design and execution. Areas of special focus include:

  • Suppliers and Sustainability
  • Corporate Charitable Giving
  • Project Community Outreach
  • Land Use Policy and Practice
  • Production/Waste Management
  • Product Life Cycle Management
Eventually, the steering committee will oversee development and publication of a Sustainability Report that meets international standards for disclosing metrics and progress toward stated goals in reduction of carbon footprint and energy consumption, supplier management, community involvement, responsible land use and overall business performance.