The case for corporate sustainability

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

When most people think “green,” DuPont is not the name that comes to mind.  On the contrary, the 200-year-old chemical company has been singled out for environmental mishaps.  DuPont wants that to change.  Its latest effort — highly publicized sustainability goals — aims to reduce the company’s carbon footprint in every sector, from R&D to manufacturing.

“It’s just good business,” says Tom Schuler, the company’s vice president and general manager for building innovations. “Even in the current recession, the one thing that has not gone away, around the world, is the demand for green products.” 

Schuler, a Virginia native and University of Virginia graduate, returned to his alma mater recently to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Virginia Sustainable Building Network. He told the audience about DuPont’s green product line and its efforts to help builders earn points for certification under LEED, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Efficient Design Program. 

“The Tyvek we make in Richmond has been used around the world to increase buildings’ energy efficiency,” notes Schuler. The commercial wrap, manufactured at the Spruance Plant in Chesterfield County, creates a tight building envelope and helps moderate temperature.  DuPont’s Zodiaq quartz surfaces now include 25 percent post-consumer content recycled material.  Plus the company recently launched Sorona, a corn-based polymer used in commercial carpeting.

As part of his talk, Schuler shared photos of Anasazi cliff dwellings in the American Southwest.  Dating back to A.D. 550, these stone cities are nearly perfect models of passive solar design. Schuler blames air conditioning for generations of inefficient design and asserts that building green is largely “relearning what our ancestors knew.”

His disarming enthusiasm for sustainability makes him an ideal spokesman for the Delaware-based, multinational corporation that in the past has found itself in the role of environmental villain. In 2005, DuPont agreed to pay a $10.2 million civil penalty and an additional $6 million for supplemental environmental projects to settle violations alleged by the Environmental Protection Agency over failure to report information regarding the potential health risks of a chemical used in Teflon.  The company, however, admitted no wrongdoing.

In 2005 Dupont won the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for cutting waste at two Virginia facilities, its Spruance plant and a plant in Front Royal (the company has five plants in Virginia). Just a few months later, DuPont made headlines over the alleged release of toxins into the James River. 

Given this publicity, Schuler acknowledges, “Accusations of greenwash abound.”

Greenwashing, or making false and exaggerated claims of environmental responsibility, is everywhere, says Annette Osso, director of the Virginia Sustainable Building Network.  “Now that green is the big thing, companies are putting the word ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ in their marketing campaigns.” 

In DuPont’s case, she says, “There are a variety of reasons that started them down this path. The bottom line is they’re changing the way they’re doing things.”

The company is building green; three new construction projects in Wilmington, Del., are expected to meet a minimum of LEED Gold.  It strives to reduce emissions by marrying production facilities and resource sites.  And it is exploring advanced solar technology.”

“Maybe small steps, but meaningful steps,” says Schuler.

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