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SUSTAINABILITY TAKES CENTER STAGE
The chemical industry faces a host of economic, social, and environmental challenges at upcoming summit in Johannesburg
KAREN J. WATKINS, C&EN NORTHEAST NEWS BUREAU
|NEIGHBORLY Huntsman operates its Rozenberg, the Netherlands, plant in coexistence with the natural environment. HUNTSMAN PHOTO
The chemical industry has been serious about sustainable development for the better part of a decade. Now the industry is gearing up for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to be held Sept. 211 in Johannesburg, South Africa. The chemical industry, which will be represented at WSSD by the nongovernmental organization International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA), hopes both to showcase progress it has made toward sustainable growth and to influence the assessment of progress made since the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
It was at that 1992 meeting, formally the United Nations Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED), that the UN proclaimed sustainable development to be the central organizing principle for worldwide economic development. In its report on the conference, now known as "Agenda 21," the UN stated that all humans "are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature" and put forth 27 principles designed to reach that lofty goal.
WSSD's principal purpose is to assess progress toward attaining the goals of Agenda 21, to set priorities for further action, and to strengthen the commitment of all parties to the program. It specifically will not open Agenda 21 for revision.
Sustainability, according to Agenda 21, implies that "the right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations." In order to achieve sustainable development, "environmental protection shall constitute an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it." And, of great significance, "all states and all people shall cooperate in the essential task of eradicating poverty as an indispensable requirement for sustainable development."
Sustainable development "is still a concept where we need to learn a great deal from each other, one which is ideally suited toward working in partnership with other people," says Terry F. Yosie, vice president for Responsible Care for the American Chemistry Council. ACC is a member of ICCA.
But sustainable development is not just a concept--it is a tangible commitment and a reality, in which the concerned parties learn what works and what doesn't work. "Sustainable development is a way to help companies become global and more competitive," Yosie says.
The chemical industry is not the only industry or group that has been active since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. But perhaps more than almost any other industry, the chemical industry has made enough progress that its representatives seem eager to talk about it. Instead of being a mere wish list, sustainable development now is the mantra of many chemical firms--among them Dow Chemical, DuPont, BASF, and Bayer--that see the concept as inherent in their corporate positioning.
||BRANCHING OUT Employees at Ciba's Mississauga, Ontario, site volunteer for the company's annual tree planting. CCPA PHOTO
Part of the reason for the industry's progress has been the Responsible Care program. Responsible Care, a codified set of standards for the chemical industry to follow, is not the same as sustainable development. The chemical industry's commitment to Responsible Care, however, has paved the way for progress on sustainability.
Take DuPont, for example. The company's website quotes DuPont Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Charles O. Holliday Jr. on sustainability: "As a society, and particularly for business, the closing decades of the 20th century were marked by significant environmental progress. We responded constructively to the environmental crises of the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s we turned our attention to the ultimate challenge--sustainable growth. At DuPont we are proud of a decade of reducing our environmental footprint. We have come a long way, certainly in reductions of waste and emissions, but also in recognizing the impact of our operations on global issues like climate change.
"However, there are still enormous challenges. Extrapolation of current trends paints a picture of an unsustainable world: an increasing gap between the rich and the poor; billions of people who do not have access to clean water, proper sanitation, adequate food, shelter, and health care; and the steady decline in key global ecosystems.
"As a company that is owned by thousands of investors, our challenge is to address these issues in a way that makes business sense. We define this direction as sustainable growth--the creation of shareholder and society value while decreasing our environmental footprint along the value chains in which we operate."
Eastman Chemical is an example of another company that takes pride in its commitment to sustainable development and its track record of turning concepts into reality. Its health, safety, and environmental achievements "don't come from one-time slogans or programs of the month," says Garland S. Williamson, the firm's chief health, safety, and environmental officer. "They are based on the consistent, proper behaviors of everyone in our company. We have incorporated the basic belief of working safely and minimizing waste into who we are."
At WSSD, chemical companies will seek more exposure and an opportunity to show what they have done so far in reducing their footprint and in advancing social programs. They also would like to use the power of WSSD to "go above and beyond the ability of the chemical industry to spread Responsible Care," according to Brian Wastle, vice president for Responsible Care for the Canadian Chemical Producers Association (CCPA), another member of ICCA.
ICCA will mount an exhibit at WSSD centering on Responsible Care efforts to bring together the industry's stakeholders and address issues germane to the chemical industry. The chemical industry coalition will seek opportunities to work proactively with governments instead of fighting them by lobbying against regulations, according to Wastle.
"Had there not been Responsible Care, we would see a lot more criticism about our industry at the conference," Yosie says. "In fact, the desired output of the Johannesburg conference is to decide [on ways] to carry the Rio summit's Agenda 21 into the next century. What we also expect from Johannesburg is an opportunity for the global chemical industry to tell its story: what it's done since 1992 and how it can contribute to environmental, economic, and social progress."
"Sustainable development is much bigger, tougher, and more diffuse [than Responsible Care]."
OF COURSE, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the U.S., and the explosion 10 days later at the Grande Paroisse fertilizer plant in Toulouse, France--the cause of which remains unknown--have brought safety and security issues into the limelight for all chemical companies. Companies are scrambling to reduce, if not eliminate, the possibility that such events ever occur again. WSSD will undoubtedly reflect these events, but observers expect that more emphasis will be placed on economic issues than on the environment.
"ICCA has encouraged us to be frank in identifying global challenges, not just making a report on how well we have done to date with the intention of persuading the conference to leave us alone," Wastle says. "We have a good agenda for global action in sustainability."
Yosie says the chemical industry probably is ahead of government and public expectations in putting into place elements of sustainable operation. Many chemical companies have committed themselves to the principle of corporate social responsibility, which goes beyond donations and public gestures to include addressing the problems of local populations.
"We have to identify areas in the Third World where the chemical industry can do some good stuff and be recognized for doing it," Wastle says.
Not every company thinks that the industry should worry about sustainable development, observers say. It is not a given that the goals of a for-profit corporation should include ensuring that new sustainable technologies replace existing ones, even if failure to make such changes guarantees continued global deterioration.
Nevertheless, "some of our members are quite conversant with sustainable development," says R. Garrity Baker, senior director of international affairs for ACC. Even those members that have not given a lot of specific thought to it, he says, "in practice do things that sustainable development expects, such as community outreach efforts and safety programs."
Wastle says many chief executive officers act responsibly, whether or not it helps them with credibility or reduced litigation, because it's the right thing to do. For most companies, "Responsible Care is our way of being socially responsible, doing the right thing whether or not it impacts the bottom line," he says. It also helps employees take pride in the company they work for.
The terms "Responsible Care" and "sustainable development" are often used interchangeably, and there is some confusion as to how Responsible Care differs from sustainable development.
"We are struggling with that difference," says Tom Grumbles, manager of product safety and occupational health for Sasol North America, formed in March 2001 by Sasol's acquisition of Condea. "Responsible Care is a defined set of codes and practices, summarized in six codes of management practice. Sustainable development, on the other hand, is not defined, and there are no documents to compare it to Responsible Care."
The relationship between Responsible Care and sustainable development differs depending on who's talking, but most see it as an intermeshing relationship with some common goals.
DuPont believes that sustainable development cannot be accomplished without Responsible Care: "It is fundamental as we move toward being a more sustainable company," says Dawn Rittenhouse, the firm's director of sustainable development. However, there are gaps between the two principles. For example, she says, Responsible Care challenges a company to do its best with the technology it has. It doesn't challenge companies to create "really green" products and processes.
Sustainable development "is still a concept where we need to learn a great deal from each other, one which is ideally suited toward working in partnership with other people."
"RESPONSIBLE CARE is an integral part of sustainable development," says Lothar Meinzer, head of the sustainability center at BASF. "We see sustainable development as a kind of roof over three pillars: economic development, environmental development, and social development. We need to work on the economic and social pillars, but Responsible Care has nailed down the environmental part."
Because the return on social efforts is difficult to measure, implementing them requires a lot of groundwork that was not needed for establishing the environmental pillar. Fact-finding is needed in the social area, Wastle says. "It is still an open question: Is it possible or necessary to codify the social side, as we have the environmental side?"
Each company interprets the social and economic goals differently. So according to Barry Stutts, manager of Responsible Care at Bayer, to codify social goals, companies must find a common thread among their diverse operations. To do this may mean going into every company site--there are about 1,200 ACC member facilities, he says--to understand what site managers are doing to meet the social side of sustainable development.
The third facet of sustainable development--economic progress--is "where we struggle the most because it is hard to quantify," Wastle says.
For example, if a plant is running well--making products with minimal environmental impact--it is a benefit to society, contributes to the tax base, and generates income. "This positive performance comes about because of Responsible Care," Grumbles says. He concludes that "everything done in the name of the economic aspect of Responsible Care contributes to sustainable development."
DuPont is working to integrate the three pillars. "The challenge in sustainable development is to do the right thing in a way that makes business sense," Rittenhouse says. "Doing things to improve the situation will make your business stronger."
Other organizations will bring a broader array of themes to the Johannesburg summit. For example, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is building a business case for sustainable development, says Advocacy and Communications Director Barbara Dubach. WBCSD has 150 member companies, including BASF, Bayer, BP, DuPont, Dow Chemical, Degussa, Monsanto, and Rohm and Haas.
At the Johannesburg Summit, the group is launching 60 case studies showing best practices in technology transfer, ecoefficiency, and innovation.
While WBCSD's efforts are directed toward making sustainable development as easy to grasp as Responsible Care, the process is challenging. "Responsible Care was relatively easy. We had the most responsibility, it was us doing it, and we had the action items," Rittenhouse says. "Sustainable development is much bigger, tougher, and more diffuse. We can't do it all ourselves. Business must work as part of a partnership to solve these problems since the situation is no longer in their control."
While sustainable development may be a slightly more fuzzy concept than Responsible Care, WBCSD notes in its newsletter Summit Focus that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has proposed 10 "clusters of priorities" to be at the core of the negotiations at WSSD:
- Making globalization work for sustainable development.
- Eradicating poverty and creating sustainable livelihoods.
- Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.
- Promoting health through sustainable development.
- Providing access to energy and energy efficiency.
- Managing ecosystems and biodiversity in a sustainable way.
- Managing the world's freshwater resources.
- Providing finance and technology transfer.
- Implementing sustainable development initiatives for Africa.
- Strengthening the system of international governance for sustainable development.
According to Rittenhouse, because countries in different parts of the world have different needs, it is not yet possible to codify how sustainable development is progressing--particularly among developing countries. "Until countries develop the right governance structure, there is no way to make progress on sustainable development because we need enforceable contracts and property rights," Rittenhouse says.
One group looking further down the road is the consulting, think tank, and public interest group SustainAbility; it has specialized in business strategy and sustainable development since it was founded 15 years ago. The group participates in the sustainability push by helping define the agenda through books and reports, and by working with companies and
other organizations to understand what sustainable development means for them. In addition, it helps stakeholders establish an agenda and develops programs that ensure progress.
Author John Elkington, one of SustainAbility's advocates, says the group has contributed to the debate by coining the term "triple bottom line" to "communicate what we understood the business challenge to be--the capacity to simultaneously add, rather than destroy, value in economic, social, and environmental terms."
Through SustainAbility, he continues, companies can find their way to implementing the new philosophy. "Companies in general find it quite easy to put in place new sets of values or business principles, but enormously hard to make them 'live' throughout the organization and its supply chain. In the end, this is a question of leadership."
Pre-WSSD reactions are mixed. At CCPA, Wastle believes the Johannesburg summit is too big, is too complex, and has too many players. BASF's Meinzer is hopeful. "We incorporated sustainable development as a key position for the 21st century," he says. "We're in the process of performing sustainable development through various projects. We hope the Johannesburg summit will give a push in the right direction."
In the larger view, as companies involve themselves in the public realm through participation in events like WSSD, they encourage the cooperation that is necessary for meeting the challenges of sustainable development. That's not just the result of international pressure--sustainable development, the industry is finding, is good business.
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