Owens Corning CSO shares the value of a sustainable 'handprint'

Frank O'Brien-Bernini is the vice president and chief sustainability officer at Owens Corning, the world's largest manufacturer of fiberglass and related products. We spoke recently about his evolving role in the company, and how the growing sustainability department contributes to Owens Corning's CSR practices and business success.

Ellen Weinreb: Please give me a brief synopsis of your career that led to your eventual CSO position at Owens Corning.

Frank O'Brien-Bernini: I started studying biology in the mid-1970s at North Adams State College (now the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts). After a year, I entered the newly created Center for Resourceful Living, focusing on what we now call sustainability. I left college a year later to start a solar design/build firm in Vermont. I returned to school after a few years, graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1983 with a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering and a research focus in solar energy. I worked at Owens Corning for the subsequent 30 years in various positions, starting as an entry-level R&D engineer and eventually moving into leadership. Ultimately, I became the chief R&D officer. In 2005, as a result of my advocacy with the CEO, sustainability leadership was added to my R&D role. I led both R&D and sustainability until late 2007, when my sole role became CSO.

Weinreb: What is the organizational structure of the sustainability office?

O'Brien-Bernini: Our sustainability team has about 60 people and has expanded considerably in the last few years. About a quarter of the team is focused on internal footprint reduction, operations safety and environment. Half of the organization is focused on market-facing sustainability, or what we call "expanding our handprint." This comprises the products we offer and collaborating with customers to increase the positive impact those products have in the built environment.

The remaining quarter of our team focuses on leveraged skills that cross the company and are integrated into sustainability. These are not specifically sustainability-focused roles. An example is product stewardship — making sure our products do what we say they'll do, are safe, and are as sustainable as possible. It's a function that's very integrated into our innovation process.

Weinreb: How is this core sustainability function integrated at Owens Corning?

O'Brien-Bernini: Our organization is integrated into the rest of the global organization similarly to the way all core corporate functions are integrated. Corporate functions set goals and set standards while the entirety of the company executes them. We have specific skills and capabilities housed in our central corporate sustainability organization, but the execution to attain the goals we set is conducted in partnership with the business units where the major resources reside.

For example, we work very closely with the business units to set our environmental goals. We set 10-year goals for energy, greenhouse gas, water, air emissions and solid waste — our major footprint aspects. We're on our second set of 10-year goals now; our current goals run from 2010 to 2020. We set those goals in partnership with the manufacturing leadership of our business units. So we work at standard-setting and identifying the goals that will really matter most for our business, employees, customers, investors, communities and the world. The actual project execution to attain those goals is done primarily at the business-unit level, with expert help from my team when needed.

Virtually all the work across my organization operates this way. For example, I have the core capabilities for building science, energy efficiency, green building, life-cycle assessment, durability and renewable energy on my team. But ultimately we work with R&D to identify and develop valuable solutions; with our marketing department to frame those solutions for our customers and their customers; and with our sales force to share what is special or uniquely competitive about those solutions.

Weinreb: You have shared how your sustainability office has grown over time. I have found that several sustainability offices are shrinking or being integrated into other functions while yours has seemed to get stronger. What do you attribute your growth to? 

O'Brien-Bernini: I don't know specifically why others are shrinking. But I know that in our company, resources flow toward ideas. We have a very strong track record of change leadership coming from our sustainability operations. We're very active in goal setting for our internal operations and then achieving those goals in a way that makes a material difference for our business. This creates a hunger for more of those kinds of successes.

We've received growing interest and support for our net-positive handprint accounting. It has created a lot of excitement in the company with what's possible from sustainability, both operationally with footprint reduction and exponentially on the market-facing side with our handprint. It has led us to consider new business models and new ways of serving our customers that we hadn't thought about before. 

Weinreb: I would also say that's a function of your industry, where the potential for the handprint is large. The marketplace is very ready for it.

O'Brien-Bernini: Absolutely. With so many of our products having an environmentally positive use-phase, it allows us to advance sustainability in both our operations and our markets.

Weinreb: Of those 60 in your sustainability office, how many have a degree in sustainability?

O'Brien-Bernini: The short answer is zero.

Weinreb: So what degrees do they have?

O'Brien-Bernini: Many undergraduate and graduate programs only recently have begun offering sustainability degrees. If you look at what these new degrees comprise, they are combining many of the competencies and skill bases we have in our company that have come from traditional degree programs, with the addition of a focus on climate change and other global mega-trend understanding. Most of my team come from traditional science and engineering degrees such as chemical, mechanical and environmental engineering, many with specific focus on things such as building science, air emissions, energy/renewables, safety/ergonomics, toxicology, fire science, analytical analysis and so on. They have then picked up their sustainability understanding through personal and professional development.

Weinreb: Any advice for those who want to get into sustainability?

O'Brien-Bernini: Figure out what you really want to do and what you're really good at — be it R&D, engineering, manufacturing, marketing or sales. Take your core skill base in what you're passionate about and really good at, and begin to integrate sustainability into that role.

From my experience, the individuals with sustainability in their main role haven't started out that way. For example, I came out of R&D. While leading R&D I saw the opportunity for sustainability inside our product and process development, and began integrating it into all our innovation work. This directly led to my expanded role to lead sustainability across the entire company.

When I'm asked how many people in my company work in sustainability, I often say, "All of them." You can be a sustainability professional in any role at Owens Corning, or in any company for that matter. For us to achieve sustainability at a global scale, we need to integrate it into everything we do.