Skip to Main Content
Blogs · Laura Bozzo, Mike Falzone, Taja McLean, and Charlotte Sarvesvaran

Lessons on the role of sustainability from John Viera

Feb 24, 2021

John Viera

John Viera

Photo provided by the Erb Institute

Earlier this month, John Viera, Executive in Residence at the Erb Institute and former Global Director of Sustainability and Vehicle Environmental Matters at Ford Motor Company, spoke to the HBA Corporations and Society class. The Erb Institute is a partnership between the Ross School of Business and the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. Viera discussed with the students the strategy and innovation behind his involvement in sustainability initiatives. HBA students Laura Bozzo, Mike Falzone, Taja McLean, and Charlotte Sarvesvaran share some takeaways from Viera’s presentation.

The scope of impact

Viera described the difference between a good day at a Ford plant and a good day on the SUMURR (Sustainable Urban Mobility with Uncompromised Rural Reach Project) in rural India. SUMURR is a Ford program that addresses critical social needs in developing countries. On the assembly line, a good day can be as simple as the line shutting down due to a quality problem and getting it back up and operating within three minutes. In contrast, with SUMURR, Viera received communication via text or email every day about how many lives were saved. If that is not the epitome of a good day, then what is?

This anecdote emphasized the power that companies and corporations have to make an impact on society and leave a real, tangible, and positive mark. His story was particularly meaningful because every day we hear about different situations relating to corporations and society, yet one cannot conceptualize the magnitude of impact until it is seen or experienced first hand. The message from Viera was that great things happen when people and organizations put aside profits and their own interests to come together as one and work for the betterment of society.

A sustainability lens

Viera highlighted the importance of using a sustainability lens for any business hoping to be environmentally and socially responsible. He explained that it is not enough to have a few employees focused on sustainability, but that the business as a whole needs to be centred around this concept. Every department within the business, including finance and marketing, should be placing the sustainability lens at the forefront.

To elucidate this idea, Viera explained how, years ago at Ford, the lens he used as an engineer was one of quality. When he needed to decide what type of steering wheel to source, he would think in terms of which wheel would provide the greatest quality for the customer. Reducing the cost in exchange for a bad quality wheel would simply not be acceptable. He explained that sustainability needs to be thought of in the same fashion if a company wants to truly be environmentally responsible. Taking into consideration whether the steering wheel materials were sourced ethically or made of environmentally friendly materials was not previously considered at Ford, but these are important questions that Viera said should be considered. This lens is applicable for most businesses and should be understood and implemented when business leaders enter companies or create their own.

Future impact

A final common theme throughout Viera’s stories was that by doing the right thing, there comes more opportunities to help. He described how Ford’s vehicle donation initiatives in developing countries to transport food, water, medicine, and people ended up having more impact than initially thought. One example of this is when the GPS (global positioning system) within the vehicles mapped out previously unmapped road systems in developing countries. In India, where Ford donated vehicles to help the post offices with capacity constraints, the vehicles were repurposed during the night to provide life-saving transportation. In both situations, it was clear that Viera’s motive to begin helping as soon as possible allowed Ford to have an even greater impact down the line.

Viera left us with many key takeaways and valuable learning points to keep in mind as we begin to navigate our professional careers. As someone who has made such an amazing impact as a global leader in corporate sustainability, Viera has given us a fresh perspective on the role sustainability plays in our everyday lives.

Related Articles