Patricia Calkins

Xerox's green maven drives efficiency and reduces waste from the plant floor on up.

Patricia Calkins, vice president of environment, health, safety and sustainability at Xerox Corp., loves the outdoors. But what she thinks she really brings to her job is a hatred of waste. After a stint as a chemist, she became an environmental engineer in 1986 at Western Electric, AT&T's former manufacturing arm, where she was charged with fixing compliance problems at a plant. From there, she has turned a passion for efficiency into an environmental mission.

Western Electric was home to the famous Hawthorne effect experiments, one of the first "environmental" tests. Was it a good place to be an environmental engineer, or were you just someone who annoyed the rest of the company? It was a great place for me. I was tapped on the shoulder and asked to take on the challenge of being responsible for all of the wastes, particularly chemical aspects. They let me build my own sandbox. I went about trying to put myself out of a job by driving efficiencies within manufacturing. It seemed to me, if we thought about materials we were using before we put it into the product, we'd avoid a lot of waste. So I engaged folks in AT&T's research center in Princeton to think about that, and then I engaged the product design folks, and that's when my management stepped in and said, "Patty, you're going way beyond where you should be going." I was going beyond the plant, into corporate functions. That's when I decided to leave AT&T.

What did you learn at that first plant? For people to be really effective in this field, it's important for them to have experience in a manufacturing environment where they really have to get their hands dirty. When I actually first took that new role at AT&T as an environmental engineer, my colleagues who were environmental engineers and safety folks asked me, "How come people listen to you and work with you on stuff, whereas when we go out in the manufacturing plant, everyone hides or wants to know what they did wrong?" I think it's because I speak to them in their language. They are getting value from me. I'm not acting like a cop, saying, "This is the Code of Federal Regulations [CFR]." I say, "Look at this inefficiency; that's lost dollars. You can be more efficient, and I can meet my 40 CFR things." People want to do the right thing. My opportunity and my team's opportunity is to help them understand what that thing is. What kind of things arise? Manufacturing is taking materials and making them into a product. There is waste associated with that. The employee safety professional would say, "We want to increase exhaust rates to suck chemicals out of the work environment to increase safety." The environmental people would say, "We don't want to discharge this into the environment." Some of us realized that if we don't create it to begin with, that's better. And if there is waste, how do we make it reusable, from a recyclable standpoint?

You've said that you wanted to stay technical, to avoid management. Yet here you are. Back in high school, I did one of those little tests that tell you the best career path for you. It said the worst direction for me would be to work for a large corporation as a manager. But somehow I found my way here. I think it was a natural progression. You can do a lot when you're in an individual tech role, but you have the opportunity to drive more significant change if you're in a management position. My style is that I feel more like I'm a team lead than a manager of people.

You work at a company that makes products, and those products produce documents. Xerox has been transitioning to more of a services company in the last 10 years. From the environmental standpoint, it makes sense, because -- have you ever heard the term "servicizing"? It's a Holy Grail of environmentalists. The notion is people don't care about the widget, but the value it delivers. To get where you need to go for the environmental or sustainable side of things, it's critical to decouple the revenue stream from the material goods. Xerox is doing this on the manufacturing side.

How can IT think differently about the environment? I have to replace my laptop every couple of years. That's a tension between the material good and being able to have access to computing power. My sense is that the whole IT world is in an evolution right now toward being more conscious of this. We've found, in inventorying print capabilities in organizations, the average utilization rate is 1% to 2%. The rest of the time, they're sitting idle but still drawing power in sleep mode. They're usually seven to eight years old, so they don't meet Energy Star specifications. So can we get rid of the unnecessary printers, rather than just replace the current infrastructure? Companies can reduce costs by like 30% but also reduce energy consumption by 30%.

Also, I think IT will be very helpful in driving forward the opportunity to measure, track and provide feedback on practices and behaviors. You really need that to get individual behavior changed.

Fitzgerald is a freelance writer based outside of Boston and a 2011 Nieman Journalism fellow at Harvard University.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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