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I caught up with Dr. Neil Hawkins, the Chief Sustainability Officer and Corporate Vice President for Environment, Health, and Safety for The Dow Chemical Company, after his presentation to AmCham Members on the past, present, and future of business sustainability. In our interview he details some of the strategies that helped turn Dow’s sustainability efforts into sales advantaged by sustainable chemistry amount to $12.4 billion in 2015. Dr. Hawkins, who was ranked by The Guardian as one of the top 30 most influential social media voices in sustainability, expounds upon the strategies and principles that guide his innovative approach to leadership. 


Q: Within the topics of CSR and business sustainability there have been a lot of changes. From terminology to technology, it seems like this area is constantly in flux. What doesn’t change for your work at Dow?

Environmentally sound and safe production. Whether it be safety, waste reduction, emissions reduction, water use, or anything else, these are all at the core of the materials science industry. For my work at Dow we are always focused on doing these things better and that guides everything we do – it’s part of our culture.

Q: I think you touched on that earlier when you mentioned that Dow has 10 year plans, and you are now in the third set of objectives. How do you formulate the strategies and specific goals for accomplishing the objective in those plans, and how do you maintain enough institutional flexibility to prevent a 10 year plan into a 10 year straightjacket?

When we are making new goals, it’s always important for us to look at the prior sets of goals. For us, also, we are listening to what stakeholders say, with an open ear and inviting their opinions. It’s important not to start with a bias and to keep an open mind up front. Listen to the stakeholders and what they think you should be doing, then work it back through into our business strategy and into Dow’s work.

As far as writing those goals, it is important to make it directionally clear to employees where you want to go, without getting rid of their creativity. It’s important to make sure they know what you want to accomplish but give your people the flexibility to look at how best to do it and to find innovative methods.

Q: Do you have any examples of how Dow has employed those techniques?

Circular economy. About four years ago the idea of ‘circular economy’ was just getting started. It was brand new and nobody was even using that terminology to talk about the concepts. We became convinced from the discussions with our stakeholders that we needed to work that in. However, because it was so new, he had to go through a process of education with our senior leadership. They were familiar with things like reducing, recycling, and reusing – the three R’s way of thinking – but we needed a more forward-looking concept. So we really made clear the direction we are going.

Q: What are some common challenges you have across industry?

One challenge that I think all companies experience is that there isn’t a standard definition of sustainability. It’s really easy to fall into arguing about definitions or words rather than doing the work of sustainability. We have been very cautious not to let words or the emotions attached to them deter us from progress. It also helps knowing how things are for other companies and elsewhere.

Q: How do you communicate with stakeholders and especially employees to stay on message and keep them directed? How do you differentiate the sustainability message from other communications?

Well it’s important for us to stay on track with our message – one thing that helps us is that when we approach communications around our goals, we don’t assume everybody needs to know everything. Of course, some people in the organization need to know about everything, but others need to focus on certain areas. For example, if you’re working on energy conservation, then knowing about our goals for energy conservation is important. So we work on differentiating our audiences in our company and tailoring our communications. If people want to learn about the other projects of course that’s fine, but we need some parts to get intensive communications most relevant to their work.

Q: Dow has a lot of projects in sustainability and corporate social responsibility around the world. I want to ask you about one example of the work in China. Dow does a lot of work with education in China, such as building schools in Sichuan province. Was that focus for your work in China chosen because of some specific factors here?

We do a lot in education in China, but education is a global emphasis for Dow. In some countries, like the US and some others, the young people today have less interest in science education – in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] education. So we are trying to promote STEM education anywhere, to show students the excitement of using this kind of education to solve problems.

Another thing about education is that our employees have a strong interest in contributing themselves. Education is an area where volunteerism is very effective and here in China we have hundreds, maybe thousands of people who are willing to go into classrooms and share their knowledge and stories. Nothing is better than having a scientist go into those classrooms and demonstrate an experiment or show how the chemistry works.

Q: You mentioned in your talk at AmCham today that it seems that people have a fear of chemicals, and an innate distrust of chemicals in their life. How do you deal with that?

That goes back to education as well. Specifically education about chemicals and chemistry. Chemistry is at the source of 95% of products sold. It is completely pervasive in a positive way. There are so many negative stories about chemistry though – when you’re really young your parents say “don’t touch these chemicals, they’re dangerous” and they tell you to stay away from that cupboard. It is important to share the benefits of chemistry through storytelling, because you always get stories on both sides of the issue. Today, the solutions to any major challenge – batteries, climate change, water conservation, et cetera – all require chemistry to make it happen.

Q: Can you share with us a ‘story’ about the positive benefits of chemistry? I really liked your example you gave today at the talk about making the Olympics carbon neutral through actual demonstration projects – can you elaborate?

So this is something that we have done at the Sochi Olympics in Russia and just recently at the Rio Olympics in Brazil. For these kinds of endeavors it’s important to have a protocol in place to assess what the actual carbon footprint is. So we established a protocol with a 3rd party to measure the carbon footprint of the construction, the carbon of the people flying to the Olympics, the energy use, all of it – we had to validate what that number is. Then we also have a protocol for measuring what our projects do to reduce carbon emissions.

This is an actual carbon reduction, from our projects at the Olympics. We aren’t just buying a forest somewhere – I mean that it isn’t a carbon offset – these are actual carbon reductions, and we have a protocol in place to validate with a 3rd party to make sure they work to ensure that our projects are working and make the entire Olympics games carbon neutral.

Q: That seems like an incredibly difficult task to make everything that goes into a modern Olympic games carbon neutral. What kind of products and technologies did you use to make the entire Olympic games carbon neutral?

Advanced building insulation at Sochi was one product we used. Not just for the Olympic buildings for the event, but also in communities near Sochi. Those products will result in lower emissions for years and years to come. We also did some demo projects on refineries in Russia – in industrial settings with novel technologies to directly reduce carbon emissions.

In Brazil we also had projects dealing with food packaging to reduce food waste and make sure more of that food was used to feed people, instead of being wasted. I quoted this earlier in my speech, that 40% of the food produced is wasted. If we are going to feed more people in the future then reducing waste needs to be part of that.

Also, one project we worked on in Brazil, that we actually developed collaboratively with the ranchers, was to improve the management of soils there being used to raise beef, or to raise food for the beef. With the soil projects, if you manage the soil well it actually can trap more carbon. It also improves the yield of the fields at the same time, so the ranchers are getting more product while using less new land, and clearing less forest. At the same time we are trapping more carbon that otherwise would be in the atmosphere. That was a very novel project that helped us make the Olympics in Rio carbon neutral.

Q: One last question, one that’s a little less serious but maybe a little harder – what are you reading lately?

Well, I tend to re-read a lot of older novels, and I read a lot of non-fiction. I just re-read a book called Tuesdays with Morrie. It’s very well known, and I try to read it at least once a year. It deals with a person who is dying, a college professor, and a guy who goes every Tuesday to see his old professor and they talk about life. I like those kinds of books, where they are based on the observations and lessons of real people, and I think it ties back into sustainability. If you can bring your work together with your values, in doing what you love and making a difference in the world, and making a living for your family, that’s where I think we strive to be.