More companies need “zero” goals

It is interesting to see such a forthright declaration of an intention to reach zero emissions and zero harm as the one that DuPont’s Building and Construction business has released — This is exactly the sort of goal that sustainability maven, John Elkington, has been encouraging through his new book, Zeronauts.

Is this sort of zero goal attainable for other chemical end-use sectors? This is a good topic to explore in the coming weeks. Maybe zero is a more attainable goal that many of us have supposed.

Setting the “zero” agenda

John Elkington’s presentation to our Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit held last week in Brussels was very challenging to hear for many in the chemical industry. And his subsequent blog in The Guardian ( must have proved difficult for many to read.

The reason is that most executives in the chemical industry see their efforts in sustainability as a gradual improvement across a range of issues, with slow but steady improvements along the way. Elkington sees things differently. He argues that what is necessary to get out of an incremental “business-as-usual” mentality, and introduce “zero” thinking, making the object of sustainability efforts nothing less than sustainable growth with a zero footprint.

Targeting zero will always be difficult for the chemicals industry: the sheer complexity of the chemical chains, and the capital intensity of the industry, will likely make the scale of investment in new facilities and technologies difficult to accomplish. Some will argue that the pursuit of “zero” impact will eventually lead to diminishing returns on the research and investment required to take those last development steps.

However, if no “zero” target is set by chemical companies, no “zero” impact technology will ever be achieved. And the chemical industry has to remember that many of the brand names, and increasingly many of the consumers, that it supplies want this trend to zero to go as fast as possible. A good example, cited at the GCIS Summit, is Coca-Cola’s decision to use only “Plant Bottle” PET (which is made with plant-based ethylene glycol) by 2020. That is not long for the chemical industry to adapt to a demand from the world’s biggest PET resin supplier for a more sustainable bottle. Multiply that demand by demands in other chemical chains from powerful brand owners, and the chemical industry could well find itself under great pressure to adapt to the reduced impact and, quickly, the zero agenda.


John Elkington on chemicals

We’ve just completed the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit, which was keynoted by sustainability guru, John Elkington. You can get John’s thoughts on the industry at More blogs on the Summit will be posted in the coming days.

The pursuit of zero: the world after Responsible Care

Talk about sustainability with chemical companies, and the conversation inevitably turns to Responsible Care. There is merit to that.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the chemical industry led the world in declaring its commitment to product stewardship. Responsible Care gave the industry an environmental profile and showed brand owners and the public alike that the industry cared about the future of the planet. It is perhaps one of the most valuable programs that the chemical industry has ever developed, and it is rewarding to see new chemical-making nations, like China, sign up for the program and the principles that underlie it.

However, it is time for chemical industry leaders to raise their sights and to develop more aggressive targets for minimizing their environmental and societal impacts. A world that is set to grow from just over six billion people to nine billion people in just 50 years requires new thinking in how it provides chemicals, food and energy.

In this regard, zero seems to be the key word. As sustainability guru, John Elkington, puts it, “zero is the new black”. He makes a call to action to develop growth businesses that generate zero or close to zero impacts. (You can hear Elkington expand on his philosophy at the Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit in Brussels next month —

There are many implications of this zero philosophy. For a start, chemical companies need to see themselves as a part of an integrated chain of suppliers, developing solutions to technical, environmental and societal problems. They need to get beyond production thinking, where the idea is to maximize the P/L through low-cost production, and into more tailored, fully-costed, solutions. In many ways, companies need to stop behaving as pure chemical companies, and behave more as global marshalls of sustainable solutions. Some companies are already trying to do this: DuPont, for one, is unabashedly setting  the goal of reaching zero in its construction and building systems ( They are aiming for “zero, zero impact, zero waste, zero harm, and net zero energy use”. Dow also has embraced the zero net energy home The new industrial biotech companies have their sights set on net zero impacts.

Now is the time, however, for established chemical companies to start imagining more zero-based solutions. Responsible Care will remain an important plank in the industry’s achievements, but there needs to be some new-generation thinking as we face the challenge of adding 150,000 people to our planet each day. The road will be bumpy, but more companies need to come out in favor of re-imaging their businesses for zero impact.


Of green economy and sustainable capitalism

The European Environment Agency recently released a report on progress towards the “green economy” in Europe. The EEA defines the “green economy” as one in which “the environmental, economic and social policies and innovations enable society to use resources efficiently, while maintaining the natural systems that sustain us.”

That is a very noble goal, and, like motherhood and apple pie, it has few detractors. But the problem is that the EU is seeing the problem of forming a green economy as being about policy and regulation, and not about human behavior and the existing way in which we conduct business. It is very true that we cannot advance at all without the political will to get to a conclusion, but there are fundamental changes that need to happen at all levels of society and in our behavior.

More fundamentally, there is a need to redefine the capitalist system in which we all thrive and on which we all depend. A recent article by columnist Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post ( pointed out that capitalism has been through many past iterations, from the robber baron capitalism, to entrepreneurial capitalism, to worker capitalism, to shareholder capitalism.

Capitalism now has to modify itself into what the keynote speaker at the upcoming GCIS Summit (, John Elkington, has called “sustainable capitalism”. Elkington has defined sustainable capitalism as “value creation that would work for 9-10 billion people, within the limits of our one planet, and create blended (or shared) value across multiple forms of capital—financial, physical, human, natural, social, and cultural.” He has declared the decade ahead as the decade of sustainable capitalism.

But if this decade is not to be squandered, we need a lot of change, especially a resetting of our horizons as part of capitalism from quarterly results to much longer horizons. We need not only political will, but an environment in which individuals feel rewarded for taking a longer term, multi-faceted view of success. The will to do this exists in all of this. The politicians can bring us together. But they might also easily tip us into a world of fiefdoms, protecting their own economies in the name of “sustainability”, but actually driving progress in the wrong direction.


Learning with John Elkington

I am delighted that CIR’s Global Chemical Industry Sustainability Summit (Brussels, Belgium, 10 and 11 September) will be keynoted by one of the world’s foremost sustainability experts and thinkers, John Elkington, co-founder of Volans (

The world is desperately short of people like John, who can really bring fresh perspective on pressing social, environmental and governmental issues, and who inspire a new wave of entrepreneurs to think differently and bring about real change without getting overwhelmed by the scale of the challenges.

John’s vision is to help companies and organizations move towards a Zero Impact Growth Economy, which many readers will consider a contradiction in terms, but which John believes is the future of sustainability. It’s a good moment to order John’s new book, The Zeronauts, which covers this topic and which is due out in May. Come September, you can hear him in person at the GCIS Summit in Brussels.