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Disney's diversity makes sustainability challenging

Posting in Energy

Managing everything from cruise ships to theme parks to millions of licensed products, The Walt Disney Co. is finding the best approaches to its ambitious goals are often local in nature.

As a diversified products, real estate, theme park and cruise company (to name just a few things that it does) The Walt Disney Co. faces some unique corporate sustainability challenges. In fact, every single one of its business unit leaders is part of the Environmental Council -- which sets goals and then leaves it up to local divisions and communities to deliver.

This week, the company has released its 2010 Corporate Citizenship Report, which illustrates just how tough it will be to embrace a truly sustainable operations model. One example centers on Disney's greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the company has set a zero net goal for direct greenhouse gas emissions over the long term, it actually reported a slight increase of 0.5 percent between 2009 and 2010. Between 2006 (its baseline year) and 2010, Disney HAS managed a cumulative 4.6 percent decrease. But it seems pretty likely that it will miss its ultimate goal of achieving 50 percent of its long-term goal by the end of 2012 unless it has some surprises up its sleeve.

The chart below breaks down the different contributions that the various units contribute, and you can see that the resorts and theme parks that Disney manages are probably its trickiest proposition when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. I'm sure that theme park attendance is partially to blame for the erratic performance the chart shows.

The company says investments in forestry projects of approximately $15.5 million during 2009 and 2010 will help provide offset credits toward its greenhouse gas emissions reduction mission during its fiscal year 2012. Those investments have been centered on projects in Peru, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lower Mississippi Valley, in Northern California and in Inner Mongolia, China.

To its credit, Disney HAS managed a 6.6 percent decrease in electricity consumption since 2006; its goal is a 10 percent reduction by 2013. Contributing to this progress have been technologies including energy management systems, new lighting, and updated heating, air condition and ventilation (HVAC) systems. Disneyland Resort, for example, has installed a Thermal Energy Storage Tank that chills water overnight to help cool the resort's buildings.

Another area where Disney is making important progress: waste management. In 2010, the solid waste that Disney sent to landfills was 44 percent of the amount it sent in 2006. It doesn't say what total of its CURRENT waste it is sending but in practical terms, its goal means keeping the waste sent to landfill to below 137,556 tons annually. The company's goal is to reduce solid waste sent to landfills to 50 percent of its 2006 baseline by 2013. (It actually surpassed this goal in 2010, but we'll see where it bounces in 2011.) Some specific ways Disney manages its waste this include moving more quickly to digital, tapeless/filmless workflow and production techniques for its motion pictures. It is working with the Green Production Guide to source on-set products and services that have the least impact possible. In the theme parks, those PhotoPass cards that you get to run around are now made of 95 percent recycled content and the merchandise bags use 100 percent recycled content.

In one area that I'm watching closely, water management, Disney has a rather vague goal right now to "minimize water use." The company suggests that a more specific water conservation plan will be in place by the end of 2012. Considering the extent of its real estate holdings, this one should be interesting.

To its credit, Disney does have some specific water conservation programs in place. For example, it reclaims about 6 million gallons of water daily at the Walt Disney World Resort. Moreover, in the past year, the Disney Cruise Line has improved the water efficiency in its laundry operations by more than 20 percent by installing new technology.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure