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 — http://chemroundtables.com).
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 (http://www2.dupont.com/Building_and_Construction/en_US/sustainable_building.html). 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 http://www.invisionzerohome.com/visionzero/. 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.