The last thirty years have seen big changes in the attitude and approach of corporations to sustainability.
From the conception of 'siloed' environmental initiatives to the appointment of Chief Sustainability Officers, many companies have gone through a veritable revolution in moving from a compliance mind-set to proactive commitments aimed at reducing their environmental footprint.
This is in part due to rising pressure from consumers, stakeholders, investors and regulators; indeed, in a global economy, companies find it difficult to hide from the pressure of increased transparency. Shareholders today want to ensure that their money is invested in a company that will deliver results, and minimize economic, environmental and social risk.
Nonetheless, the drive to maximize shareholder return and continuously step up productivity has traditionally overshadowed the need to conserve resources, manage waste, reduce pollution and enhance social impacts.
As a result, some companies have found it difficult to change the corporate mind-set and give sustainability the same priority in business decisions as return on investment.
However, at DuPont, we do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. We would argue that the management strategies, which have been so successful in developing and running a profitable, forward-looking organization, should fully integrate sustainability, thus driving business results and sustainable development concurrently.
Driving Sustainability through Pragmatism
The approach taken by DuPont is pragmatic. If environmental improvement is side-lined by making it the responsibility of an isolated sustainability manager, it will never gain the priority required to truly make a company change. Why not use proven, existing management structures to drive environmental and social performance at the same time as business growth?
Sustainability, however, goes beyond internal company processes. An effective sustainable business strategy must also focus on product stewardship and societal needs to drive innovation.
Production should be lean, green and clean. Though daunting, it is certainly possible for companies to achieve such an aim. DuPont, for example, has managed to increase its production volumes by 41% since 1990, while concurrently reducing its energy consumption by 6%, hazardous waste by 62%, water consumption by 9% and greenhouse gas emissions by 55% (see Box 1).
At the same time, we have focused on developing materials and services that allow customers to make cleaner and greener products, such as polymers that reduce the weight - and thus fossil fuel consumption - of cars and low-cost technologies for commercial production of ethanol from agricultural residue and bioenergy crops, including corncobs and switchgrass.
This was achieved through a consistent drive to innovate to solve major societal challenges, a thorough knowledge of our customers and their needs, as well as a strong focus on product stewardship.
Our investment in footprint reduction goes back to the 1930s, when the first statement of environmental responsibility was adopted by the company. Today, our vision is to be the world's most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer, healthier life for people everywhere. As often as we repeat these words, we remind ourselves that they are more than an inspirational goal - they inform our everyday reality and are part of the way we do business at DuPont.
The result is a business strategy designed to focus on products that can deliver profitability in a more sustainable way.
Challenges in improving sustainability
If a company wants to make a lasting improvement in footprint reduction, one of the most critical success factors is the full engagement of employees in the attainment of corporate goals.
In other words, individual employees need to think about and take into account the consequences of their actions. The best means of achieving this is by cultivating a strong company culture. Voluntary or goal-driven waste reduction is several times less costly than regulatory driven work, for example, but the change in culture required is not easy to achieve.
Corporations can be large, unwieldy organizations, having functioned with an established corporate culture for decades. They may embrace a sustainability vision, but actually embedding it into the culture and changing behaviour takes significant time and energy. They struggle with conflicting aims within their organization and struggle to find the right balance between sustainability and business objectives. Often this is because senior management delegates responsibility for sustainability to a designated officer, often a specialist without power to incite meaningful change.
In adapting to a sustainable business model, companies face questions such as how to optimize decisions to ensure it achieves sustainability improvements while keeping costs down; how to align the organization and achieve operational discipline with regard to social and environmental strategies; how to speed up progress towards sustainability goals, reduce risk and enhance impacts on society?
Without an effective corporate sustainability business strategy, individual business units can pursue independent strategies and duplicate work with the result that costs rise.
The lack of transparency leads to slower overall progress. Just as for a general business strategy, the corporation must provide a general direction for individual business units to pursue.
A clearly defined strategy accelerates progress
DuPont works with a planning and resource management system that integrates product stewardship and corporate footprint reductions with business planning.
It is driven by corporate goals, and targeted at accelerating environmental and social performance by prioritizing and optimizing choices, determining and allocating corporate-wide resources, identifying opportunities for synergies and leveraging, as well as measuring and forecasting progress towards goals and objectives.
Market Facing Goals 
- Double investment to US$640 million in R&D programs with direct, quantifiable environmental benefits for our customers and consumers
- Introduce at least 1,000 new products or services that help make people safer globally
- Increase annual revenue by at least US$2 billion from products that create energy efficiency and/or significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions
- Since 1900, DuPont has reduced global greenhouse gas emissions measured as CO₂ equivalents by 72%. Further reduce at least 15% from base year of 2004
- Reduce water consumption by at least 30% at global sites that are located where the renewable freshwater supply is either scarce or stressed. For all other sites, we will hold water consumption flat on an absolute basis through the year 2015
- 100% of the off-site fleet of cars and light trucks will represent the leading technologies for fuel efficiency and fossil fuel alternatives
- Since 1990, DuPont has reduced global air carcinogen emissions by 92%. Further reduce by at least 50% from a base year of 2004
- 100% of our global manufacturing sites will complete an independent third-party verification of the effectiveness of their environmental management goals and systems
Fundamentally, the process focuses on the identification of choices that will allow the company to accelerate progress towards its environmental objectives, and the optimization of those choices to ensure maximum business and environmental benefit (see Box below).
Internally, this means identification of opportunities for environmental improvement. DuPont found that by decreasing water consumption and improving operational efficiency for a cooling tower at the DuPont Dordrecht facility in the Netherlands, it could reduce the annual intake of freshwater by 100,000m2 - the equivalent to the amount consumed by an average of 700 Dutch households per year. This also led to a reduction of additive deliveries of water from 130 to 15 per year, thereby decreasing operational costs and emissions generated through the delivery process.
As it pertains to implementation, DuPont sees five steps in the development of an effective corporate sustainability management plan.
- Build a business case for sustainability
- Understand the impact of key drivers
- Integrate sustainability into the business strategy and objectives.
- Manage risk, reduce cost and increase stakeholder value
- Develop competencies and support a cultural shift towards sustainability
By setting up a sustainability management system that focuses on accelerating value creation and performance, then integrating it into business strategy; and implementing it in a way that addresses the cultural changes necessary within the organization, the process will end up being embraced and lasting. DuPont also looks at its value chain to minimize harmful inputs and outputs, while maximizing the 'good' across networks of companies and geographies. The good and bad can be defined correctly by five elements that have traditionally been used to encapsulate corporate sustainability:
- Environmental impact of waste;
- Air emissions (with a major focus on greenhouse gases);
- Energy use;
- Fundamental human rights;
- and, increasingly, water,
- all under the goal of decreasing or avoiding the depletion of resources not only through the value chain, but also through a lifetime of end use.
Externally, companies should also look at ways of improving sustainability throughout the value chain by augmenting product stewardship efforts.
At DuPont, for example, the polymers business was able to greatly reduce operating costs and improve sustainability outcomes by initiating a product line simplification project to incorporate cost product stewardship on raw material inputs that posed environmental concerns. One modification on a specific raw material with sustainability and supply concerns reduced the cost by 10 times and solved the supply issues - this win-win approach with supplies is currently being expanded to other product lines.
Realizing Improvement through a Sustainability Management System
Shareholders have traditionally sought investments which deliver dividend and share growth. There is a small but growing recognition that business growth may be linked to reputation; therefore, companies must allocate importance to environmental leadership to satiate demands placed by not only shareholders, but also stakeholders and consumers.
Further, if products are manufactured sustainably, that means processes improve and become safer, the environmental footprint is reduced, risk exposure lowered, costs cut - and revenue is therefore increased. This may sound simple, but is often difficult for companies to put into practice. However, if companies manage their environmental commitment like financial and productivity commitments, they will find efficiencies of scale.
By establishing a management system that integrates sustainability planning into the core business process and at the same time focuses on optimizing resource allocation and maximizing returns, business and sustainability goals can be achieved more quickly. This has not only worked for DuPont, but also for a variety of companies and industries we partner with.
This encompassed devising strategy goals, setting up development guidelines from budgeting to training, putting in place individual business unit plans which clearly delineate accountability roles, establishing analysis and reconciliation metrics through to assisting with implementation and communication of progress.
By analyzing all opportunities and focusing efforts on the ones that generate the most value, it is possible to align business unit strategies with corporate goals. As a result, overall costs can be lowered, opportunities can be clearly identified, synergies become transparent, strategies coordinated and, in turn, much progress can be made.
Such a clear plan helps to avoid the pitfalls which prevent many businesses from selecting the most effective projects. Site managers may be tempted to implement their pet projects rather than those most suited to the needs of the organization.
It is also often difficult to select the 'best' project purely on the basis of raw data. By using a clear sustainability planning process, the 'right' projects, which are most likely to succeed, can be selected and integrated in the business planning process. These actions can then be shared across the company - geographically or functionally - to maximize results.
The challenges our world faces have not changed. If anything, they have become more urgent and, in a global economy, more complex than ever. Companies face a conflict between social, environmental and economic interests. They need to take a pragmatic approach which takes into account the business value of sustainability.
A clearly aligned sustainability management system that allocates resources intelligently, leverages efforts across business units, identifies the best sustainability projects for the company, improves operational discipline and takes into account specific and measurable sustainability cost benefits when making business decisions, is the only way to ensure accelerated progress is made towards business and sustainability goals.
The resulting financial, environmental and societal benefits are substantial.