Environmental sustainability: The bold look of net zero

The following is excerpted from Issue 21 of The Corporate Citizen. To learn more about how to make a well-informed, strategic decision about which corporate citizenship reporting frameworks, standards, and rankings are right for your company, visit our topic page on Sustainability Reporting.  


Founded in 1873, Kohler Co. is one of the oldest and largest privately held companies in the United States. Today, the Wisconsin-based company is a leading manufacturer of plumbing products, cabinetry, tile, engines, and generators. Despite its closely held corporate structure, the company and its 35,000 associates have an outsized investment in the six continents in which its 50 manufacturing locations operate. The end goal? To reduce its global environmental footprint to net-zero by 2035.

Announced in 2008, Kohler’s Net-Zero 2035 Program aims to:

  • reduce energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and offset the remaining GHG emissions by funding renewable energy, forestry, and resource conservation projects;
  • eliminate solid waste sent to landfills;
  • reduce water use per unit of revenue;
  • drive growth in sustainable products and services; and
  • build a sustainably minded culture.

“At Kohler, we believe that the path to a better place is a constant endeavor—that better business and a better environment go hand in hand,” said Kohler CEO David Kohler. “It is our responsibility to work in harmony with nature and, in everything we do, stay mindful of our responsibility to future generations. This is the foundation of Kohler Co.’s Believing In Better® philosophy, and it drives our thinking and action around our stewardship and environmental sustainability.”

Since launching the program, Kohler has reduced its GHG emissions by 14 percent, waste-to-landfill contribution by 47 percent, and water usage by 37 percent. Building on this progress, Kohler continues to strive for greater reductions through innovative upgrades like that of its Foshan, China, manufacturing facility. Here, the company retrofitted the facility to allow waste heat from a shuttle kiln to be reused by the air-handling units in the facility’s cast shops and drying rooms, resulting in a 20 percent reduction in natural gas use.

In addition to retrofitting its existing facilities to become more environmentally sustainable, the company recently built three Gold LEED-certified buildings in the United States, India, and China, and partnered with its regional distributor on the first LEED Gold retail building in North America. The facilities operate using at least 16 percent less energy and 30 percent less water than EPA baselines. Additionally, more than 20 percent of the materials used to construct the company’s Gold LEED certified building in Kohler, Wisconsin, were harvested and manufactured within a 500-mile radius, and 20 percent of the materials were recycled.

The innovative spirit that guides such efforts is generated by Kohler associates, whose passion for sustainable design led to the creation of the company’s Innovation for Good think tank. There, associates brainstorm solutions to address three of the SDGs: Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, and Responsible Consumption and Production.

Launched in 2012, Innovation for Good has already generated a number of sustainable products, including the KOHLER® ClarityTM water filtration system. This compact filter can provide safe water for an entire family by filtering out more than 99 percent of bacteria and protozoa from up to 40 liters a day. Now, the company is working with World Vision, iDE, and Water Mission—among others—to bring this affordable system to people in remote regions.


“As a manufacturing company known for its kitchen and bath products, we’re uniquely suited to provide water and sanitation solutions,” said Laura Kohler, senior vice president of human resources and stewardship at Kohler. “Clean water is our business, so we are especially passionate about providing access to clean water and sanitation—particularly for women and children, who often experience the greatest impacts.”

By tapping into the creative energy of its associates, Kohler is proving that companies can achieve successful and sustainable progress that delivers value to business and society.

“The world needs business leaders to stand up and lead by example in terms of sustainability,” said David Kohler. “It’s okay to be a capitalist and an industrialist and an environmentalist at the same time; you can conduct business in a way that is right for the environment.”

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