Rayovac gets charge out of protecting environment

Staying ahead of the regulatory curve is something all businesses need to think about, but when it comes to the environment, it can be equally important to pay proper respect to consumer sentiment and one’s own conscience.

Witness mercury, an element that was once thought to have curative, almost magical properties; was later seen as an important industrial metal; and as of late has largely been relegated to the role of environmental pariah because of its toxic effects, particularly on young children and developing fetuses.

Unfortunately, mercury is not just trapped in fish and landfills – it has long been a key part of many industrial processes, and it’s not as easy as it sounds to simply get rid of it.

“My advice to other companies looking at this is to not just take a reflexive position to say that changes of this type are inherently negative.” – Randy Raymond, VP, Rayovac Hearing Aid Batteries

The folks at Rayovac, a corporate heavyweight and industry leader that makes its home in Madison as part of Spectrum Brands, know that all too well. Mercury has traditionally been an important element in batteries. In the ’90s, the element was largely banned from alkaline batteries, but it still existed in button-cell batteries, which power watches and hearing aids. 

So in 2004, Rayovac started down the arduous path of making its batteries entirely mercury-free.

“We knew from our experience in alkaline batteries back in the ’90s that governments everywhere would move to eliminate mercury from all sorts of products, including batteries of all types,” said Randy Raymond, vice president for Rayovac Hearing Aid Batteries. “We believed that it was just a matter of time before government was moving in the same direction on legislation that would impact button cells and other types of batteries, so we decided to get ahead of the curve.”

Easier said than done. As Raymond notes, mercury is an effective gas suppressant in batteries – one that enhances performance. Without it, the challenge is to find a “cocktail of organic substances” that can play the same role.

It was a challenge that Rayovac took head on, and the result provided an object lesson in how the intersection of consumer demand, looming regulatory imperatives, technological ingenuity, and corporate responsibility and leadership can produce outcomes that help preserve the environment and the bottom line.

For its efforts, Rayovac Hearing Aid Batteries won the Eco-Product of the Year at IB’s 2012 Business Sustainability Awards. It was the culmination of a no-compromise commitment the company had made years before.

“Our position in the marketplace is that of the world’s longest-lasting hearing aid battery,” said Raymond. “We invest heavily to ensure that we can deliver that kind of performance to the consumer. If we would have had to step back from that, it would have been very harmful to our business. So we worked long and hard to make sure that we could balance what we saw as an imperative to get mercury out of our product, but also to make sure that we did that without sacrificing quality and performance. That was paramount.”

At the same time, said Raymond, consumers have responded to Rayovac’s efforts as awareness of the dangers of mercury increases.

“The customer response has been very positive,” said Raymond. “As we all know, mercury is a toxic heavy metal, it’s bioaccumulative, and there is no doubt that mercury in the waste stream is a serious issue.”

But while Rayovac faced herculean challenges in putting the mercury genie back in the bottle, its standing in the marketplace no doubt allowed it to marshal resources that other businesses simply don’t have access to. Still, you don’t have to be a corporate giant to take the plunge. Pursuing sustainable practices can simply be a matter of balancing priorities, says Raymond.

“My advice to other companies looking at this is to not just take a reflexive position to say that changes of this type are inherently negative,” said Raymond. “We really challenged ourselves on how we could do this and make it positive, not only from an environmental perspective, not only satisfying what we saw as emerging legislation, but how we could turn this to our advantage in the marketplace overall. And my counsel to others who are looking to do this is to take that same approach. Take a balanced approach.

“Yes, there may be cost implications. Yes, there may be investment implications, but there are also positives to be had in terms of positioning your business in the marketplace. And I think if companies do a really good job of balancing these, they’ll see that in fact you can do well from a business perspective, and you can do well from an environmental and social responsibility perspective.”

 

Of course, given its position in the market (six out of 10 hearing aid batteries around the world are Rayovac products), the company has been able to multiply the good it’s done by setting an example for others to follow.

“As the market leader, in many respects we set the benchmarks for performance and for quality, and if we make a move, for example, in the direction of mercury-free, that gets picked up on and sets the tone. We weren’t necessarily the first with the mercury-free battery out in the marketplace, but I think we were certainly one of the first to have it in widespread global distribution, and others have subsequently followed.”

A greener plant

Rayovac took home double the hardware at the Business Sustainability Awards, netting the award for Eco-Efficiency Initiative of the Year as well.

The award recognized the company’s efforts to make its hearing aid battery plant in Portage more energy efficient and to reduce its use of toluene, a potentially hazardous solvent.

The company relit the plant, reducing its expenditures on lighting by 50% and shrinking its carbon footprint by 5%. At the same time, it decreased its use of toluene by half.

According to plant manager Dave Young, as with the elimination of mercury from its button-cell batteries, there were both sound financial and lofty ethical reasons for those efforts.

“When I got into this job we reviewed our metrics around our health and safety and environmental impact, and so we had a sort of individual desire to have a lower impact on the environment, because we live and work in the area,” said Young. “At the same time, we have significant customers like Walmart that are really spearheading what they call a carbon disclosure project, which is to try to get their suppliers to be aware of what their carbon footprint is and to reduce their impact.”

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