At Environmental Defense Fund, we believe that environmental progress and economic growth can and must go hand in hand. EDF+Business works with leading companies and investors to raise the bar for corporate sustainability leadership by setting aggressive, science-based goals; collaborating for scale across industries and global supply chains; and publicly supporting smart environmental safeguards.
This is the first in a series of interviews exploring trends in sustainability leadership as part of our effort to pave the way to a thriving economy and a healthy environment.
Linda Fisher is one of corporate sustainability’s trailblazers. In fact, she was named the first chief sustainability officer of a publicly traded company (DuPont) in 2004.
Over the next decade, Linda led DuPont’s efforts to establish the company’s first set of market-facing sustainability goals, which included a strong emphasis on innovation.
Prior to joining DuPont, Linda served as deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where she had also spent a decade working to safeguard human health and the environment, including developing the agency’s first position on climate change.
I recently caught up with Linda to talk about her unique career that spanned the public and private sectors, and to hear her insights on how sustainability begets market opportunities and why business leaders are staying the course on sustainability despite an unpredictable political climate. Below is an edited excerpt of our discussion.
*Note: On September 1, 2017 Dow and DuPont completed a planned merger to form DowDuPont.
What attracted you to a career in corporate sustainability?
I got interested in sustainability as an outgrowth of my work at EPA. When you’re at EPA, you spend a lot of time writing rules and regulations preventing people from doing harm to the environment, to public health, and to our natural resources.
When I left EPA for the private sector, I realized there was more to protecting the planet than just telling business what not to do. In fact, at the time, industry was beginning to pursue voluntary initiatives and go beyond regulations that EPA set, particularly in terms of emission reductions.
I also learned that innovative companies were looking at sustainability as a driver for business growth. Companies could develop a growth strategy around new innovation products that would make society more sustainable. And that really appealed to me.
How did you take your insights and experiences from EPA to lead the process in developing DuPont’s 2020 Sustainability Goals?
DuPont’s early goals were really focused on reducing emissions. And everyone involved in sustainability at DuPont realized no matter how low we drove our emissions, it wouldn’t affect change. We needed a bigger vision, a larger more robust set of goals.
The real significant step change came when we set the 2020 goals. We started the process by talking with our research and development team to get them to build sustainability issues into their product development. I think that was really a big change for the company because those goals were based around: What is the future of DuPont? What are the products that we want to sell in three, five, ten years down the road? And, how can we be sure that our products are addressing some of the societal challenges around sustainability?
The goals were business-driven and market-oriented because we had to think about the sustainability trends that were going to be affecting our customers.
Can you give any examples of how those sustainability goals have played out at DuPont and what benefits the company is experiencing as a result?
Probably the biggest benefit is that DuPont has become a partner of choice for innovative companies. Companies have a problem that they want to solve or an opportunity that they want to create for their customers, and they come to DuPont to help them develop it.
Another example is photovoltaic cells. The amount of energy you’re going to get out of each individual solar cell depends on the quality of materials. DuPont, as the maker of most of the materials that go into solar cells, has partnerships with manufacturers to develop materials to last longer and be more energy efficient, which I think makes great sense to those who are interested in putting solar cells on their roofs or even for commercial grade solar farms.
And finally, when the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards came out, DuPont began a long-lasting partnership with the automobile industry in developing materials to make lighter, more efficient cars that would still be safe. We also developed new refrigerants that had no ozone depletion properties.
How do you see collaboration between industry and government unfolding with regard to sustainability?
The shift I have seen from the late 90s is the environmental community and some in government are seeing industry as the source of solutions.
If we’re going to figure out how to feed nine billion people, we’re going to need the innovation to produce better seeds and grow food in a way that’s less impactful on the environment.
If we’re going to figure out how to transport nine billion people in more and more urbanized environments, we’re going to have to figure out how to make automobiles and other forms of transportation more efficient.
Many companies see sustainability driving innovation and growth opportunities. That mindset shift I think is hugely significant, and I see that gaining momentum.
Innovation in industry can move at a faster pace than government regulation, leaving a gap between the interest and need to bring new innovations to the market and the regulations to assure the public safety of new products. How does industry regard regulation?
I think industry realizes — and I’ll speak for DuPont but I see this in other companies as well — that there is a role for well-written, science-based regulations because those regulations assure the public that new innovative products can be used safely, and are produced in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment.
DuPont was one of the leaders in nanotechnology and we knew that globally this technology might be essential to producing some of the innovative materials that we would need. But there was no well-written risk framework or regulatory framework on nanotechnology.
At the request of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we put a team of professionals together from DuPont and EDF to produce a framework for the risk management of new nanotech materials. That partnership produced a great quasi-regulatory document. DuPont committed to following it, and many governments around the world used the framework as a model for how they wanted to develop a regulatory process around nanotechnology.
The EPA plays an important role in ensuring the safety of new products being brought to market. However, the EPA is facing significant leadership, staffing, and resource challenges. What are your thoughts about EPA and what’s happening in Washington right now?
I am very concerned about what’s going on at EPA. It’s an agency that is critical to the US and critical to industry. EPA has a very important role to play in assuring the public that our manufacturing facilities are well-run, and our communities are not at risk. They also have a critical role to play in approving products as quickly as they can.
DuPont is a company that wants to comply with regulations, and tries its best to get good science before the agency around those products. But then DuPont needs a well-staffed, well- run agency to get those products approved.
I am concerned about the discussion around rolling back a lot of the EPA regulations. I don’t think the answer is rolling everything back. In fact, I think that makes US industry less competitive, not more competitive.
We are in many ways the envy of the world in terms of what our environmental regulatory framework has done. There is always room to improve, but I don’t want to see that undone.
A significant reduction in the overall EPA budget can lead to not just a reduction in federal protection but also a reduction in state and ultimately local protection as well, because federal funds appropriated to EPA are then dispersed to state environmental programs.
Where would you like to see sustainability leadership in the future?
There is a part of industry that doesn’t see the opportunity in their future to help solve the world’s sustainability problems. These companies may be less innovative. They may be tied to old systems and old technology.
I think that the future of sustainability is with the companies that have the capacity and skillset to drive innovation and provide society with solutions. I see most of those companies sticking to their commitments on sustainability.
I thought it was very reassuring that hundreds of companies signed and publicly stated that the US should stay in the Paris climate accord. In the face of political pressure, those companies were willing to stand up and be counted and encourage the US government to stick with the accord.
I would say those companies look at the Trump administration’s position on the environment as short term, and they’re looking to build their companies long term. The long-term trend means producing products that put far less demands on the planet. And I think there are a lot of companies that see themselves in that space and they’re not turning back.
What’s next for you personally?
I’m trying to see as much of the world on a bicycle as I can. I’ve been personally trying to make up for lost time in terms of being outside as opposed to being in an office.
But I’m still involved in sustainability. I’m consulting with companies around their opportunities and challenges in sustainability. I get very excited about helping companies solve problems and set a high bar for others in their industry.
Follow Tom on Twitter, @tpmurray