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Sustainability and Stewardship in the Kingdom of God

Let me begin by saying that I’m a sinner saved by grace–a tremendous amount of grace. My parents came to Hong Kong as refugees. Before I was born, my mother decided to take a correspondence course in Christianity and in the process became a Christian. So, even before we could walk, my sisters and I were taken to church, and I am a member of that church to this day. When I was 12, I was led to Christ by a visiting preacher, John Stott, and have been influenced by his writings ever since. As a teenager, the late Francis Schaefer also influenced my thinking and the intellectual foundation for my faith. When I attended university I was discipled by leaders of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. The great China Inland missionary, the late David Adeney, became my mentor. The late Ralph Winter also influenced me greatly with his burden for unreached people and shaped my thinking about missions. These great men of faith gave me a lifelong love and passion for China and the unreached. So, you see, I had a tremendous amount of grace from God early in my life and God has continued to be gracious to me.

I was a business executive until several weeks ago. My resume listed 25 years of work for various supply chain organizations in both the luxury end and the discount business. For whatever reason I’m really good at this stuff, so I ended up being senior vice president COO of Wal-Mart global procurement. This is the world’s largest supply chain since the Silk Road. I had to procure tens of millions of dollars a day of stuff to keep this hungry supply chain fed. I also spent about five years in academia and with NGOs. To tie my professional life and faith together, I spent several years looking at business as mission and how it relates to our faith. My particular interest is to see how to truly make organizations productive, professional and a means to declare our faith.

At the same time, the notion of sustainability became more and more important for me as a practical feature of any ongoing responsible business. For businesses to succeed in the long run, consideration must be given to how they compete and how they thrive. A successful business must be a force for good in the marketplace, and its presence has to add to the well-being of societies. I think many commercial organizations intuitively understand this and certainly any large, good organization understands this. The challenge for us is how this relates to our faith and how we can use our faith as a vehiclea demonstration of who we are, what our values and beliefs are and the identity of the God that we worship.

When I was working in supply chain sustainability, we worked on various practical ways to improve performance, profitability and social responsibility. There is some learning from these experiences that we can apply as we think about how we can work to advance the Kingdom of God. There are four things I want us to consider in the area of how we work: quality improvement; waste reduction; energy efficiency; and legal compliance. These are things I think we can all get behind and support. I believe these areas are important to us individually, to our families, to the organizations we belong to, to our society at large and to our witness.

Quality Improvement

When we talk about quality improvement, we focus on the elimination of defects, improvement of performance and the durability and reliability of things we produce. Defective products are wastethey are not usable. They took energy to make, raw material to produce, fuel to transport and even more fuel and energy to dispose of. By eliminating defective products we can all live more safely, we can reduce waste and we can reduce cost.

What is quality but the reliability of a product’s performance? My wife and I have a particular love of old, Ming Dynasty Chinese furniture and we have a couple of pieces. However, when we were younger and less well off, we bought a lot of cheap furniture. We were always disappointed when these would quickly break down. On the other hand, the several old pieces of Chinese furniture that we own–several hundred years old–function brilliantly. They are beautiful to look at, reliable in use and sturdy in construction. They will probably operate and serve their purpose for hundreds of years to come. Wouldn’t it be great if everything we own were of that quality? What if we as designers, manufacturers and consumers demanded that all of our products be high quality? What if we only purchased items that are durable and reliable? What if we were no longer satisfied with disposable or poorly made products? The ongoing effect of something like this is that it would actually impact our consumption habits; we would buy less but of better quality.

Quality is something that occurs with much intention. It means a lot of thoughtfulness throughout the life cycle of a product. There are also significant ramifications to demanding quality; one of those is ethics. When you think about quality you have to confront the issue of the corners that people will cut to make things poorly. Just as some deliberately take out quality, you also have to deliberately design in quality. We have to think about choices of raw materials, construction and manufacturing processes. You engage engineers and consultants upfront in the design phase rather than when problems are rolling off the assembly line. That’s quality. It’s making things better.

Waste Reduction

Waste reduction is the removal of harmful by-products. This is achieved by optimum material and energy usage in manufacture, transportation and recycling. Every day I see unnecessary industrial and household waste. I see it in my trash can at home. Reduction of waste is a very simple but powerful option because it gives us better quality at lower prices. Think about packaging for example. Packaging is the last thing that goes on a product and the first thing that is thrown away by consumers. It has the world’s shortest life, yet because it has weight and takes up space it requires energy to move and transport. If we can reduce simple things like packaging, there are tremendous implications. Things like shoe boxes, shopping bags, stuffing, cartons, labels, clips and wrappings are easy to solve. Today, in China’s rivers and lands, manufacturing waste and byproducts are the single, largest source of poisons and pollutants.

While I was at Wal-Mart, we challenged some of our suppliers to cut their packaging by a modest five percent. Everybody did that within months. Because of Wal-Mart’s size, the impact was huge. Annually we reduced consumption by hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel as we used fewer trucks, trains and ships due to resulting volume reduction. A couple of years ago we told another supplier of detergents and soaps that we were no longer going to sell any of their products that were not at least double concentrated. Up to 80 percent of soaps and detergents can be water. By using double or triple concentrate we shrank everything in size including the containers. This reduced shipping size and water usage. Buying items that are double or triple concentrated does wonders!

Several years ago I worked for a shoe company, and we used a lot of glue to put shoes together. Most of the glues we used at the time had a lot of benzene in them. An NGO estimated that 25 tons of benzene evaporated into the air every year on our assembly lines because people opened glue containers and the glue would start evaporating. Twenty-five tons of benzene were being discharged into the air! Think about the amount of pollution that we generated every year. So, we made a simple decision: we would use water-based adhesives. It turned out to be more cost effective, it shortened the production life cycle and it reduced pollution. Just by thinking about it and working on it, we found a simple, winning solution.

A few years back I worked with a mill in China that was blacklisted because they were discharging so much untreated polluted water into a stream nearby. They were causing untold environmental damage. We worked with them to recycle the water to take the pollutants out and then reuse the water in their washing process. They reduced their water consumption by more than half and the savings helped them recover the capital cost of equipment for processing the water in about six months. They received a green seal of approval from the Chinese Government, exceeded environmental industry standards and were recognized by international NGOs for their work. All of a sudden they became the poster child for how mills and dye houses should operate–and they became much more profitable in the process. Yet, for years and years they thought their only option was to illegally discharge their wastewater. That is just a lack of thoughtfulness and consideration. Reducing waste on a corporate level and reducing waste on a personal level is certainly possible; it is just a matter of thinking about how to do it.

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the third area I want us to consider. We need to use less energy to do or make the same thing. It is a continuous improvement challengeusing less to make more. In Wal-Mart’s 2008 Global CEO Summit in Beijing, we told our biggest suppliers we wanted the same unit of production being made then to be made in three years time using 20 percent less energy. The opportunities turned out to be in simple things. For instance, in China about 65 percent of all industrial electricity is used to drive motors. Many of these motors are left on but not doing anything productive. We addressed the issue by installing more on/off switches. We put in monitors and meters to show usage and told people we were doing this. Behaviors changed. There was little or no cost to doing this. Think of all the things that spin, turn or operate in your workplace or at your home that really are not doing anything. Sixty-five percent of these may just be making noise.

The second highest area of electricity consumption is usually general lighting. The next time you go into a Wal-Mart store in Beijing, look up. Look carefully at the florescent lightsthey are not really florescent lights but LED arrays. It costs a lot to retrofit light fixtures. Working with another company they found a way to put LED lighting arrays in a florescent tube fixture causing it to go from a 35 watt to about a 15-watt fixture. This was without a retrofit. When w started we thought the return on this investment would take about three years. Today, the investment return is down to about a year and a half. The good news came from reduced electricity use, reduced cost of manufacturing and a much longer useful life. A florescent tube’s useful life is measured in hundreds of hours of use. An LED fixture can last for over a decade of use. Stick your head into the freezer units and you will find that all the lighting is now LEDs. Today, the most energy efficient Wal-Mart store in the world may be in Beijing.

Legal Compliance

Finally, we come to legal compliance. It would be great if we could demand that the law of the land be obeyed regarding waste and discharge in working environments as well as work conditions for workers. However, every day there are laws being broken. We know there are some working environments that are dangerous and hazardous. We know there are factories that discharge waste that is not treated. We know there are workers who are not paid fair wages. China actually has many laws on their books; some are not adequately enforced while others are deliberately broken. However, we can demand compliance. We, as consumers and customers, can make it clear we will only buy things made in safe, legal, environmentally sound environments. We want transparency and robust enforcement. Companies will listen if we make these demands with our purchase decisions.

The good news is that by making demands for quality we get better products. They are designed better, they are more durable and they are more reliable. By demanding quality we reduce defects and actually reduce costs by removing the cost of repairs and replacement along with the unnecessary waste in transporting, manufacturing and production. By reducing waste and inefficiency, we again save costs. We pay less for a better product. Reducing waste not only makes good environmental sense but also makes us think about our design process, our manufacturing process and our consumption practices. Our packaging and disposal habits result in saving money. By demanding legal compliance, we embrace responsibility and know we are helping to provide safe working environments and fair wages for workers. Legal compliance may have some cost in the short term, but in the long term it allocates cost to the right places because it saves on cleaning up the mess and the social costs that illegal practices create.

We are really talking about making good business decisionsthere is no spiritual conviction involved. So, the good news is that these things really are doable. They do not cost more; they cost less. These practices are good for us, they are good for the environment and they put our faith in action.

The bad news is that this may be a case of too little too late. We are just not doing enough. If science is right, we are not making a big enough dent in the deterioration of our environment and the scarcity of our energy sources. We need to do some drastic rethinking. Let’s say you are in Hong Kong and want to drive to Beijing. You get in your car and begin driving south at 100 mph. Sometime later someone tells you that you have to drive north to go to Beijing. So you slow your car down to 50 mph while you’re still going south. Everything I’ve talked about so far may slow us down to 50 mph. It slows down the deterioration, reduces the rate of consumption and mitigates some of the bad that is happening. However, it may not be enough to address the core issues of sustainabilityespecially in our cities. There is a point at which we have to radically stop doing what we have been doing and start doing things differently. We have to turn the car around and start heading north. Don’t forget that if you have been heading south at 100 mph and eventually do make a U-turn, the first couple hundred miles is just to correct the mistake. It does not improve things; it just gets you back to the starting point. This is something for us to think aboutand a U-turn may be drastic, difficult and costly.

There is one final point: there is an opportunity for us in the church to take a lead role in this matter. The community of believers can agree and prayerfully come up with a united position on these issues. Indeed, it may be an opportunity for believers to take a position and drive the discussion with the support of the Chinese government because they are supportive of sustainable solutions. It need not be a matter that divides and it can be a tie that binds. I believe that when the church leads, God is glorified. We can be a force for change and at the same time fulfill our responsibility to God’s creation. We can be a moral voice and unifying force that gets this on the national agenda. We can do this in a common sense, rational way without scare tactics. We do need good science, analysis and understanding. We do need to figure out how we talk in a collaborative matter, and we need sound leadership with prayerful judgment. We have an opportunity to do this for ourselves, our community, our children and the Kingdom of God.

Image credit: GRD2-20091218-R0011984 by Fang HSIEH, on Flickr

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Edwin Keh

Edwin Keh, until April 2010, was the Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Wal-Mart Global Procurement. Prior to Wal-Mart he had a career of 20 plus years in multinational companies as well as several years working with NGOs. He serves on the boards of several NGOs and universities. …View Full Bio