Chemical reactionsJuly 2015
Neil Hawkins, corporate vp environment and sustainability, Dow Chemical spoke to Ethical Performance about his love of nature and the US company’s latest 2025 sustainability targets
Neil Hawkins has worked for Dow Chemical man and boy. For the past 27 years he has been involved in various aspects of the chemical giant’s environmental profile. Describing himself as always having been “an environmental, ecological guy”, he didn’t set out to work for a chemical company originally. However after working in nuclear engineering, where he was very much focused on protecting people from radiation and exposure to the ideas of chemical risk at graduate school, Hawkins felt Dow a natural fit.
So what’s his view of a sustainable chemical company? “Chemistry powers 96% of all products, so a company dedicated to the power of chemistry and solving challenges is a very powerful idea and a very powerful reality for Dow.”
He’s aware that even the word ‘chemistry’ doesn’t always sit comfortably within the sustainability sphere. Hawkins says that he wants stakeholders – particularly consumers – to gain an increasing confidence in chemical technology. “We want them to have confidence in the tool box. We need to address the concerns that people have and to do that we need to get involved in dialogue and help people understand how chemistry is helping them.”
The American chemical company has recently unveiled its 2025 sustainability goals, a strategic set of commitments designed to redefine the role of business in society. It has set bold and aggressive sustainability targets designed to develop breakthrough product innovations, positively impact the lives of 1 billion people, and deliver $1 billion in cost savings or new cash flow for Dow by valuing nature in business decisions.
“Our new goals are driven by stakeholder engagement. What we’ve tried to identify is a place ten years from now and how we can be an effective partner in a sustainable future,” explained Hawkins.
“The state of the planet, value chains, things today move fast so we have flexibility in our goals. They give a direction and are very helpful to everyone in the business as to where we’re headed. It’s about moving these principles into everyone’s day-to-day job.”
One of the goals – and he concedes that it’s a big one – sits right at the middle of the business and that is to have a positive impact in volunteering. “We’re very focused in this way. Our people are currently very engaged with many volunteering projects and we try and unlock this in every employee. It’s about taking what they know, their skills and to have an impact on a local scale, on the people on this planet. It’s good for the development of our people.”
Dow’s partnership with Acumen in Africa is a case in point. This is focused on the development of entrepreneurial skills. “We provide experts to their NGOs – if they need supply chain help or if they need an agricultural expert. It’s been extremely successful with 85% of projects being enabled,” explains Hawkins.
Another strand of its new sustainability blueprint is Delivering Breakthrough Innovations. By 2025, Dow’s product portfolio will have a six-fold net positive impact on sustainable development, the company pledges. Dow products will offset three times more carbon dioxide than they emit throughout their life cycle and save three times more energy than they use throughout their life cycle.
So what have been the advancements Dow Chemical has made in ‘green chemistry’ so far? “There’s been lots of exciting developments,” says Hawkins. With a research spend of $1.3bn, perhaps that’s not so surprising, but Hawkins emphasizes that all this research is being harnessed to the concept of sustainable chemistry.
“We are the leading company in low VOC paint. We produce paints that are functional,” explains Hawkins.
Evoque helps coatings formulators improve paint performance properties while using less titanium dioxide (TiO2), the white pigment that is energy intensive to manufacture but ubiquitous in architectural paint for its ability to provide quality hiding. In 2013 it won the Presidential Green Chemistry Award, which marked the ninth time that Dow and its affiliates have won the Presidential Green Chemistry Award, more than double any other company in award history.
Another Dow innovation was recognised this year when it won the Edison award for chemistry in electronics. Dow has developed a new solder that eliminates the use of lead. Soleron BP Tin-Silver helps ensures device performance, reliability and application flexibility in electronic material applications.
Going forward, Hawkins sees the future in more collaboration. “We don’t have all the ideas; to solve specifics challenges we’ll need to collaborate,” he said.
Indeed collaboration is the cornerstone to Dow’s 2025 targets. While you could argue that the targets are more narrow – it focuses on identified areas of energy, alternative energy, water, food, health and infrastructure - the approach is broader through opening up to collaboration. Dow will develop a more transparent approach. “We need to be collaborative, not combatitive,” said Hawkins. “Openness and transparency will be a hallmark of the company in the new decade.”
Valuing nature is another bedrock for the company’s 2025 strategy. Hawkins believes that Dow is very progressive in this area. “Five years ago, no company had a great approach. Now we view nature as natural capital. Through Nature Conservancy, a science-based NGO, and a year of dialogue, we’ve developed tools and a process to incorporate nature into business decisions,” he says.
“We wanted it to be actionable. Every decision at a local plant, for example, we’re going to apply land capital, so that we’ll be able to assess the impact we’re having and make things better for nature. It’s a big goal,” he admits.
Another example of this philosophy in action is in Texas where Dow built a constructed wetland instead of a sequencing batch reactor to solve a regulatory compliance issue in meeting suspended solids requirements for a wastewater treatment system. The financial results indicate that the total net present value savings calculated for implementing the constructed wetland instead of the sequencing batch reactor is $282m over the project’s lifetime.
Hawkins is a firm believer that you can value nature from a business perspective. “I’m a nature lover. The more we understand the value of nature, the more nature we’ll preserve. Nature as an economic value is better than philanthropy, and becomes an enabler for business,” he maintains.
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