If a tree falls in the rain forest and no one is there to trumpet its eco-friendliness, does it still make a sound?
It might — if that wood is destined for an electric guitar. Gibson Guitar Corp., the iconic guitar maker, has worked since the late 1980s to make its wood supply environmentally sustainable. In January, Gibson's electric-guitar division was set to switch to 100% fair-trade-certified wood. Other Gibson divisions, including Baldwin Piano, plan to follow suit.
Yet unlike Starbucks, The Body Shop, and other businesses that eagerly brandish their green bona fides, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz doesn't much care to flaunt his environmental cred (the guy drives a Hummer, after all). What matters to him is ensuring that Gibson has enough exotic wood, mostly mahogany, to keep making guitars for generations.
"We're mercenaries. We're a company. We're for-profit," Juszkiewicz says in his Nashville office, packed with so many music-industry mementos it looks like his own private Hard Rock Cafe. "I'm not a conservationist." High-end guitar enthusiasts, after all, demand that their instruments be made of exotic woods. But prices for exotics can swing wildly, governed by an unsteady supply and the threat that some species may be placed on an extinction watch list.
Juszkiewicz wanted to eliminate the guesswork by building a network of growers rather than relying on brokers scouring world markets for the best prices. He approached the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit conservation group, to discuss buying wood from Mexican suppliers certified as sustainable. (Such growers are graded against environmental, labor, and community standards — and for responsible harvesting.)
But that hardly made a dent in Gibson's sourcing problems. So the company hired away two Rainforest Alliance employees to source wood in Costa Rica and Brazil. "Within the first year of hiring these guys, they were able to develop significant sources," Juszkiewicz says. "We went from less than 1% usage of certified product to something like 80%." Since then, Gibson has forged a direct relationship with growers in Guatemala. That provides both stability of supply and quality, since it's able to instruct farmers on its exacting specifications.
Initially, Juszkiewicz says, Gibson paid a premium for purchasing wood this way. Now buying direct yields modest savings — and the relationships help curb traditional slash-and-burn harvesting, which threatens supplies of precious woods. "In the short run, a slight price increase won't necessarily hurt them because a guitar is a higher-value product," says David Owens, a professor at Vanderbilt University's Owen School of Management. "In the long run, it helps ensure that they can tap this supply not just in five years but in 50 years."
Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance, says she's seeing a critical mass of CEOs discovering that environmentally friendly practices can be good business. But she still teases Juszkiewicz, one of the first: "He'll say he's a businessman, that he's just out to make money. But believe me, he's passionate about wanting to leave the world a better place."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.