Ford and the Sustainability of the Family Legacy

1912-Ford-Model-T_thumb2My grandfather worked as a plant manager at Ford Motor Co. for 34 years. When I ask him about his experience, he does not refer to Ford as a company, but as a family. Since his retirement, Ford has remained an important part of our own family. F-150s have served as the toolbox for our family farm for years. Ford minivans have transported us on exciting journeys to faraway destinations, albeit fraught with epic battles between siblings in the backseat. I learned how to drive behind the wheel of a Ford and emerged unharmed from a Ford following a nasty collision. My family has never purchased a vehicle that wasn’t a Ford. I would venture to say that Ford has left a far greater influence on the lives of my family and I than any large corporation in the world.

As I toured the factories in Dearborn, Michigan during last week’s annual Ford Trends Conference, I listened to today’s employees echo my grandfather’s talk of the Ford family. The same employees glowed with pride about the recent announcement of Ford’s No. 1 ranking on Interbrand and Deloitte’s Annual Best Global Green Brands list.

Throughout the conference, I couldn’t help but ponder the intersection of these two sentiments. What does family have to do with a company’s commitment to sustainability? The answers are probably most obvious in smaller, family-owned companies. However, I might argue that many of our most recognizable brands represent even more powerful testaments to sustainability of the family legacy through cultures that endure for generations despite the added pressures of public ownership and attention. Consider Forrest E. Mars Sr. who, in 1947, documented his commitment to building a business that creates a “mutuality of benefits” for all stakeholders — a culture which lives on through Mars’ Principles in Action summary. Or the Waltons of Walmart, who’s longtime commitment to a sustainable supply chain inspired a sustainability index, which now evaluates suppliers in over 200 product categories.

Ask Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford whether there’s a more intrinsic case for sustainable business than the family legacy: “What my great-grandfather established, especially his legacy of innovation, continues to inspire our commitment to a strong business, great products and a better world. We are putting unexpected levels of technology within reach of millions of people, accelerating the development of new products that customers want and value, and driving growth by creating jobs and bringing the freedom of mobility to the world.” Like the legacy of innovation forged by the iconic Henry Ford, family-affiliated companies find their identity in the ethos they leave to family generations that follow. If the future is a company’s priority, how can quick, short-term gains possibly take precedent over long-term viability?

This serves to explain how Ford has managed to set itself apart from competitors in recent years. The auto giant has taken its share of hits, no doubt. But after years of duking it out with both cross-town and cross-Pacific rivals, Ford has lived up to its reputation for toughness by adapting to change the game altogether. The automaker now offers seven electrified models, including six hybrids and the purely battery-fueled Focus Electric. And its signature F-150 pickup truck has set the bar among competitors with a full aluminum body that cuts 700 lbs from last year’s model without sacrificing size. From its industry leadership in developing renewable energy infrastructure, to achieving a 62 percent reduction in global water consumption since 2000, Ford continues to push the envelope with its legacy of innovation.

But, as I learned in Dearborn, the Ford family’s commitment to sustainability extends far beyond its own products or even the transportation industry. Todd Walton, Manager of Ford’s Environmental Quality Office, talked about how Ford’s water stewardship initiatives are addressing issues related to water access in communities around the world. In recent years, Ford has invested millions of dollars in wastewater treatment and rainwater harvesting and purification projects around assembly plants in water-scarce regions of India, South Africa and South China. “Ford has been growing in many areas of the world where water access and availability are a concern,” said Walton. “So we’ve been actively working there to help people get access to fresh drinking water. In India, we have launched projects to install water filters in government-run pre-school centers for children and primary schools near our plants. We also run campaigns to communicate the importance of clean drinking water for children.”

Ford’s annual Trends Conference makes it clear that the company is looking at the world through the eyes of the next generation. Today’s Ford family is not inheriting the family business, they are borrowing it from their grandchildren.

Image credit: Sweet & Simplicity Blog

Travis heads up strategic partnerships here at Previously, he has worked with several social enterprises including Calvert Foundation, SOCAP and Karisimbi Business Partners, a socially motivated management consulting start-up in Rwanda. He has also served in Guatemala as a Social Entrepreneur Corps Fellow and continues to support Wild River Organics, his family’s organic fruit farm. Travis received his BS in Business Administration from Pepperdine University. He can be reached at and followed on his responsible travel blog at

3 responses

  1. Sorry to say I work at one of the dearborn ford facilities, and we have no concept of enviornmental stewardship. Not even one recycle bin on the production floor. All wood ,plastic steel banding and cardboard goes to the landfill. All in the name of profit I guess

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