You know how it goes. A company plugs away, stays under the radar screen, and doesn't draw a lot of attention. And, then, bam! In one week, you can't seem to escape the news or Twitter feed.
That's how I stumbled on a bunch of mixed reports coming out of Johnson Controls, a diversified technology and industrial company known mostly for its lead-acid batteries.
There was, of course, the “good” news stream.
- The company last week showcased its ie:3 concept car for the first time in Europe at the Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (IAA) conference in Frankfurt. The ie:3, meaning “inspired efficiency,” combines the latest seating, electronics, interior, and battery technology, according to the press release.
- Johnson Controls announced a $100 million plan to build a Start-Stop vehicle battery plant in China. The plant, scheduled to start production in early 2013, will supply global and local automakers in Asia.
- There were also the typical congratulatory announcements about awards received, contracts won, and recognition garnered.
But there was also one big piece of disturbing news floating around the wires and Internet newspapers: Johnson Controls last week halted production at its Shanghai factory because local authorities are investigating whether several companies in the area are involved in alleged lead pollution cases. According to these press reports, production was suspended based on reports indicating that some two dozen children in Kangqiaotown had excessive lead levels in their blood.
Johnson Controls denied the claim that its production facility was directly associated with these incidents and issued this statement explaining the factory closing and its compliance with Chinese officials. Here's the main takeaway:
- On Sept. 13, the Pudong New Area government requested that Johnson Controls suspend lead-related production in our Shanghai plant as we have achieved our lead quota for the year. As a responsible corporate citizen, we have complied with this request. Johnson Controls is the market leader and global benchmark in health and safety performance in this industry. We operate all of our facilities to the same standards and with the same practices globally… The lead emission average at our Shanghai facility is about 1/7 of Chinese national standard; furthermore, our lead discharge through waste water treatment facility average is about 1/10 of Chinese national standard. Our plant employees are regularly tested to ensure their blood lead levels are sufficiently low, and in fact our blood lead over 200 ug/L rate is world class at 0.7%.
I know from reading that same statement that the company has earned several accolades for its track record in occupational health and safety and environmental sustainability. It even got a nod from US President Barack Obama over the summer.
So how do we categorize this one? Is Johnson Controls generally a good green company caught in a PR snafu? Even if the company is cleared for the lead pollution, if it has exceeded its lead quota for the year, will the factory stay closed for the next quarter? And if it is adding another factory in China, couldn't similar issues arise further down the road? Is China more seriously looking at its environmental and safety standards, or is this just another sort of one-off report? Should other multi-nationals be following this case more closely and ensuring its own plants comply?