LCD Panel Boss Takes Aim at Air Pollution
Mar 04, 2019

A physical checkup three years ago changed the life of Innolux honorary chairman Tuan Hsing-chien, who had just retired at the time. He was told he had lung cancer, and the diagnosis spurred him to take up the charge against air pollution in Taiwan.

At lunchtime on a day in mid-January, we met up with Tuan Hsing-chien, the honorary chairman of LCD panel manufacturer Innolux Corp., at a restaurant on Xuzhou Rd. in Taipei. Tuan usually sets up interviews with the media there when he heads to Taipei because of its proximity to National Taiwan University, where he continues to get follow-up care.

In May 2016, Tuan formally retired as chairman of the company, which generates roughly NT$300 billion in revenue a year. Just a few months later, a routine checkup led to the discovery of a 0.9-centimeter malignant tumor in his lung, which was diagnosed as stage 1 cancer.

“There’s pretty much no problem now,” Tuan says. The tumor was detected relatively early and surgically removed almost immediately, leaving only a two-centimeter scar, but the incident compelled Tuan to look back at his life and figure out what triggered the disease.

The Fight against Air Pollution

Hereditary factors may have been at play, as Tuan’s mother died from lung cancer and his older brother was operated on because of it. But Tuan also thought back to his time on the job, when he often traveled to Tainan on Taiwan’s bullet train and saw heavily polluted skies hovering over the Chianan Plain.

“Why is it that a lot of people who don’t smoke, don’t cook and don’t have a family history still get lung cancer?” is a question that Tuan has been unable to get out of his mind since he himself was diagnosed with the disease.

That’s why even though he remains a consultant for the Hon Hai Group, Innolux’s parent company, helping it plan its global flat panel network, he has spent more time over the past three years talking about air pollution than talking about his work.

In December 2018, he collaborated with the Innolux Education Foundation on a “Haze Free Formosa” film festival featuring short videos shot by 25 different directors to raise awareness of air pollution. The initiative left no doubt that fighting dirty air had become Tuan’s passion in retirement.

On the day CommonWealth Magazine caught up with him, he brought an air quality meter with him and tested the restaurant for PM2.5 particulates soon after arriving.

“The concentration [of PM2.5] is relatively high, probably because it’s noontime and the kitchen is busy. Let’s try again after we’re done,” Tuan says.

He has even taken his engineering spirit to Innolux’s offices, testing air quality at several different spots including in doorways and meeting rooms and outside test labs. The results are recorded and used to make improvements.

Starting with Solutions at Innolux

Tuan has found, however, that changing himself can only go so far. Mobilizing people to work together to reduce air pollution and find solutions that get to the root of the problem are now his main objectives.

Dedicated to pursuing that goal, Tuan has met with scholars and experts in the field, environmental engineers and medical workers, hoping to clearly identify the causes of air pollution, but he has found that to be far more complicated than he expected. Just establishing where contaminants come from sparks heated debate, making solutions harder to come by.

Undaunted by the challenges, Tuan felt companies should move to the forefront of the issue. “Why can’t companies tackle the issue starting with their own operations?” he wondered.

To find a good approach, he started within Innolux, testing in real time the pollutants emitted from every one of its processes and using methods exceeding international standards to lower volatile organic gas emissions. At the same time, he worked with professors at National Taiwan University, National Cheng Kung University and National Central University to look for other feasible answers.

Seeking to expand the reach of his movement beyond Innolux itself, Tuan also set up a group in July 2018 consisting of the heads of more than 200 suppliers and launched a three-year plan divided into three stages for them to reduce emissions at their companies.

Under the scheme, companies are to take a complete emissions inventory and devise strategies to address problems in year 1, bring emissions in compliance with existing standards in year 2, and reach emission reduction goals they set for themselves in year 3. The group of suppliers includes major international vendors such as Corning and Merck and domestic suppliers such as publicly listed San Fu Chemical Co.

“We have the ability to do this and can help other companies and encourage everybody to get involved,” Tuan says.

Helping Suppliers Cut Emissions

Tuan was well aware that smaller suppliers might not have people specialized in factory management or environmental health and safety or have the ability to plan and execute an emissions reduction program. So Innolux holds seminars at which experts provide technical guidance to help suppliers get up to speed.

Yet even with Tuan leading the charge and focusing on Taiwan, only a limited number of business owners have been willing to engage in the process.

Shen Keh-perng, a section chief in the Industrial Technology Research Institute’s Green Energy and Environment Research Laboratories, who works closely with Innolux, said that besides setting emission reduction goals, companies needed the assistance of experts to execute their plans.

An even bigger obstacle to promoting this voluntary emission reduction program, Shen says, is that many companies see good environmental practices as an additional cost that may not contribute to profitability. The constant patter they hear about the high expense of combating pollution erodes their willingness to get involved unless government regulations require them to do so.

“It is definitely not an easy sell,” he admits.

Yet the many obstacles have failed to weaken Tuan’s determination.

He believes that as public awareness of environmental issues grows, corporate social responsibility will emerge as a worldwide trend. As a supplier of leading international brands, including Apple, “we have been asked for many years to reduce emissions on a yearly basis,” Tuan says, referring to Innolux.

Consequently, Tuan says, Taiwan will have no choice but to get on board because it represents an important link in the global supply chain.

Emissions Reduction Key to Competitiveness

“As the company’s top responsible person, would it be possible to sit down with your environmental health and safety specialist at least twice a year to discuss how to prevent pollution? Have people get together to discuss some topics and find areas where you can improve,” Tuan suggests.

The former Innolux chairman looks forward to the day when more top executives take a long-term view and see emissions reduction as an integral factor in competitiveness rather than as a prohibitive short-term expense. Only then can the air pollution problem be solved at its root.

“Let’s keep watching to see if progress is made,” Tuan says at the end of our interview. He then checks the air quality meter on the table again. Lunch service is about finished, and the previous orange light reading has changed to green, signaling that the restaurant’s air quality has improved.

As he was talking, Tuan reminded us that driving less and walking more could contribute to reducing contaminants in the air, “but when you are waiting for a red light to change to green, remember to take four steps back. You’ll breathe in a lot less dirty air.”

Tuan has already begun planning further into the future. He said confidently that if Taiwan’s air pollution problem can be solved, “we’ll be able to export that know-how to other countries in the future,” an indication that as Tuan pursues his campaign against air pollution, there is still no finish line in sight.

Translated by Luke Sabatier
Edited by Sharon Tseng