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DuPont CSO: focus on innovation and listen to critics

 
DuPont

Linda Fisher, CSO at DuPont: ‘you never really are harmed by listening and trying to hear what other people may have concerns about’. Photograph: Laurent Gillieron/EPA

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “DuPont CSO: focus on innovation and listen to critics” was written by Oliver Balch, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd December 2013 15.50 UTC

After a dozen years as a regulator, Linda Fisher decided to cross the fence and enter the private sector. Not one for half measures, she joined DuPont, one of the world’s largest science and technology corporations. Her reasoning for making the leap was straightforward: she figured she could do more in business to tackle the big environment issues of the day than in government.

It’s not that the former deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is anti-regulation. Far from it: she’s a staunch advocate of “sound policies” that drive industry to change behaviour. Nor is she naive about the potential harm that corporations can wreak. Much of her time at the EPA was spent designing rules to keep the private sector in line, after all. Rather, it’s a question of mandate. Regulators are all about preventing harm, Fisher says; businesses are all about looking for opportunities.

Take the task of feeding the planet, something that DuPont is actively engaged in through its crop protection business. A watchdog like the EPA can prevent food producers causing harm; it can’t mandate those producers to actually grow food or to do so more efficiently.

Opportunity knocks

Fisher, who heads up DuPont’s sustainability function globally, admits to “drawing energy” from the opportunity-focused mindset of those around her. “When you talk to our scientists they can get very excited about trying to be a part of making automobiles far more fuel efficient [or] about how to make batteries and solar cells have longer lives”, she says. Similar conversations probably aren’t swirling around the corridors of the EPA.

Such energy and innovation doesn’t spring from nowhere, however. There are plenty of corporate research laboratories that plough on without heed to sustainability trends or challenges. Clear targets help avoid such indifference, Fisher states. Back in 2006, DuPont laid out a series of ambitious goals aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of its products and services. It continues to update these. Money helps too. At the same time as releasing its targets, DuPont announced it would double its sustainability-related research budget to $640m per year as well.

That’s not all. DuPont requires all new research projects to be assessed according to their sustainability merits. Fisher helped design an evaluation checklist of 11 criteria, ranging from impacts on water to toxicological risk. Only those products that demonstrate a 40% improvement against at least one criterion, while not negatively impacting any of the other ten, gets the green light.

Fisher isn’t just interested in what’s happening in the lab; she has an eye on the strategy suite too. DuPont comprises 12 separate businesses in total. Fisher and her team sit down with the senior management of each of these on an annual basis. Together they map out emerging risks and opportunities related to sustainability issues, and determine any specific actions that need to be taken.

Collectively, these various measures have “really helped the scientists and the businesses think differently about what their focus was going to be”, says Fisher. She cites the example of DuPont’s emergence as an important player in the solar industry. Its recent innovations include a cutting-edge photovoltaic metalisation paste that increases solar cell efficiency by reducing loss of sunlight. The company is also developing new formulations to reduce the materials required for solar cells.

Hearing all sides

Although Fisher left the EPA a decade ago, she’s not forgotten her experience there. In an immediate sense, she knows all the hurdles that regulators put in the way of new chemical processes and technologies. It’s not worth the time and energy to push forward chemistries that “won’t get through the regulatory review process easily”, she says. Better to throw the company’s money at a greener or safer chemistry because “it will go much quicker [and] you will get to market much quicker”.

The EPA also left her with an abiding conviction about engaging critical audiences. Much of her time at the US environment regulator was spent “working with people who didn’t agree with me”, she recalls. “My twelve years there really got me to understand the importance of hearing all sides and figuring out what you could do to find common ground to bring solutions forward.”

Fisher isn’t blind to the difficulties of such an approach, nor to people’s innate preference to speak with allies rather than critics. Over the years, DuPont’s work in areas such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology has made it the subject of a number of negative publicity campaigns. Her colleagues often feel such criticism is unwarranted or just plain wrong, Fisher notes. That may be, yet they still need to sit down with critics and hear them out, she insists.

 

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