Midway through an interview with Wesley “Wes” Bush, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Northrop Grumman Corporation (NGC), the overhead room lights suddenly blink off. Bush looks pleased. He had just explained how the lighting system at the aerospace and defense technology giant’s facilities and factories are programmed to turn off automatically in vacant rooms. “We haven’t been moving enough,” he explains, smiling.

The incident is symbolic of Bush’s efforts to make environmental sustainability company policy at NGC. After taking over as president and CEO in 2010, he transferred the company headquarters from California to Virginia “to be more tightly engaged with the policy and programmatic issues that are dealt with every single day in the DC area.” In other words, to be closer to the company’s main client: the US government.

The company, which reported revenues of $25.2 billion last year, has been involved in what Bush calls the “science” of monitoring the environment for many years. The satellites NGC built for NASA and the company’s wide range of sensors and unmanned vehicles map out changes in the atmosphere, monitor hurricanes, and provide weather information. But, as Bush says, “We really had not given much attention to environmental sustainability internally.”

At the CEO’s direction, environmental strategy has become an integral part of the company’s esprit, with three objectives: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing solid waste going to landfills, and reducing water usage by implementing best management practices in all facilities over 100,000 square feet.

The greening of Northrop Grumman, he says, is the result of “a sense of corporate responsibility. The fact that we do have such a strong scientific underpinning in our organization means it is always asking itself questions, and one of those questions had become, why aren’t we doing this? This was something very important to take on.”

So in 2010 Bush contacted Conservation International, an Arlington-based environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), to advise his company on how to go green “in a way that would be meaningful,” says Bush. The organization remains an NGC consultant—Bush is on its board—and is a partner for the company’s educational program ECO Classroom. (That classroom is actually the Costa Rican rain forest: This July, the Northrop Grumman Foundation sent 16 middle and high school life sciences teachers from around the country there for a two-week, hands-on ecology course organized by Conservation International.)

Bush says sustainability sends a message “of the way we run the company. [With] an enterprise the size of ours, we have a lot of offices, and it does primarily come down to electricity utilization. The decisions that our employees make every day in our operations turn into emissions.” A necessary initial step to meet environmental objectives was to raise the consciousness of 67,000 employees distributed throughout the United States and in 25 other countries. Adding the category of progress in reaching environmental goals to the list of performance-based parameters for executive compensation was a sign of the company’s commitment.

Bush regards as a particular accomplishment the way the company took an older office building and completely redesigned it, winning a gold-level certification from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the internationally recognized green classification system.

Bush, a West Virginia native who joined Northrop Grumman in 1987, moved into the top spot after serving six years as chief financial officer. “We’re working hard to move into a leadership position [in environmental sustainability],” says Bush. “But there are many companies, not so much in our own industry but in other industries, who started at this before we did, and we’re looking at them as good examples of the kind of things we’re doing now.”

Bush notes that greening the company doesn’t lose sight of the bottom line. “We haven’t stated any figures publicly so I wouldn’t want to put a number out there, but it is a substantial investment,” he says. “But we make it because we see the return. Once we reduce our energy consumption—that goes into our cost structure, and it makes us more cost competitive. Every one of these actions has a return associated with it.” At a time when cutbacks and retrenchment have brought greater scrutiny to government contracts, aiming for better cost effectiveness makes sense.

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