In the run-up to the official United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro last month, businesses showcased how they are incorporating sustainability into their operations, products, and value chains.
Companies touted their efforts in Rio in two consecutive gatherings held in advance of the UN meeting, which was nicknamed Rio+20. First was a five-day Corporate Sustainability Forum organized by the UN Global Compact, a voluntary initiative for companies committed to upholding human rights, addressing labor concerns, protecting the environment, and fighting corruption. It was followed by a one-day gathering convened by Business Action for Sustainable Development 2012, a coalition of international private-sector groups that officially represented industry and business at the talks leading up to the Rio+20 summit. Officials from chemical manufacturers and consumer product makers spoke at both events.
“The business community is key, I believe, in really helping turn the trends we have,” said Neil C. Hawkins, Dow Chemical’s vice president for sustainability and environment, health, and safety. Businesses can help solve the world’s great challenges in ways that are profitable, he said.
Industry doesn’t view sustainable development as a philanthropic effort, said M. R. Rangaswami, founder of the Corporate Eco Forum, an invitation-only organization for large companies that are committed to viewing environmental protection as a business strategy issue. Instead, he said, firms adopt corporate sustainability practices to mitigate risks, manage costs, enhance brands, and create new revenue opportunities.
Gail Klintworth, sustainability manager for Unilever, said companies can’t choose between business growth and sustainable development. Both are necessary, she said.
Sustainable development provides opportunities to shape markets while meeting consumer needs, Klintworth continued. An example, she pointed out, is Unilever’s Comfort One Rinse fabric softener, which the company recently introduced in Asia. The product allows consumers to rinse detergent out of laundry with significantly less water than they use currently, she explained.
In addition, larger businesses that assimilate sustainable practices and products into their operations can serve as examples to smaller companies, said Carlos Fadigas, chief executive officer of Braskem, the Brazil-based petrochemical firm. At the forum, Braskem joined a group of other Brazilian companies in committing to promote a green and inclusive economy. They agreed to strive for sustainable economic profits that maximize social and environmental benefits and minimize negative impacts caused by the production, use, and disposal of their products.
Hawkins said Dow’s goal is to make its corporate environmental footprint smaller and help its customers do the same with its products. The company is looking at broader issues of sustainability, too. Last year, for example, Dow and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) announced a collaboration aimed at helping companies—not just Dow—incorporate the value of nature into global business goals, decisions, and strategies.
“It’s not a conservation agreement,” Hawkins said. Instead, the deal involves studying various methods to value nature on behalf of the company and the communities around its facilities, he said.
The initial project of the collaboration centers on a Dow plant in Freeport, Texas, located along the Brazos River. It is focusing on three areas. One is assessing the value of water to the company now and in the future. Another is determining whether planting trees on an industrial property can be a wise business strategy. The third is studying the value of maintaining coastal habitats to reduce the impacts and costs of hurricane damage to the company.
Last month in Rio, Dow and TNC announced a second project. It will take place in Santa Vitória, Brazil, where a joint venture between Dow and Mitsui & Co. is building a facility to convert sugarcane into polyethylene. This will be the largest bioplastic manufacturing plant in the world, Hawkins told C&EN. Under the agreement with TNC, Dow will study the techniques used to raise sugarcane on land the company owns or rents.