To make sustainability real, make it personal
A corporate-academic partnership that's made for good chemistry.
From the perspective of business, engaging employees is critical to developing and advancing a company’s sustainability goals. The feeling is mutual from the perspective of current, not to mention future employees: A company’s sustainability goals are important to the process of attracting and retaining the top talent.
But meaningful engagement across the entire spectrum of a company’s operations can be challenging. Many employees are often unsure how their job roles connect with a company’s sustainability programs and strategies, and many companies find it challenging to integrate — and inspire — leadership on sustainability in the day-to-day activities in their workforce. The net result: Employees often end up being an underused and undermotivated resource in a company’s sustainability journey.
Dow recognized these challenges early on and began to address them with its company-wide commitment to 2015, and now, 2025 Sustainability Goals, which have sought to redefine the role that business plays in society. A primary objective of the goals is to mobilize the human element — employees, suppliers, customers and the communities in which they live and work — to improve the well-being of people the world over.
To take the 2025 goals to the next level within the company, Dow collaborated with the Erb Institute of the University of Michigan in 2017 to design and launch the Dow Sustainability Academy. The Dow-Erb partnership has proven to be incredibly successful, productive, fun and, yes, sustainable. Dow brought to the table its decades of experience on making business sustainability real, and Erb brought its 20-year track record of being at the leading edge of research and teaching at the intersection of business, society and the environment.
The result of this partnership is a business-sustainability leadership and development program that provides Dow employees with the tools and insights they need to bring sustainability into their daily work. As part of the academy, Dow employees — selected as part of a competitive, application-based process — spend a week in training at the Erb Institute.
During this time, they learn from and interact with some of the world’s leading experts on a wide range of topics, from making the business case for sustainability and the policy backdrop against which business sustainability unfolds, to hands-on tools for implementing the elusive triple bottom line. When the in-class sessions come to a close, academy participants work on real-world projects related to one of the Dow sustainability goals and are given six months to use what they learned in Ann Arbor to complete them.
Recently, we had the pleasure of watching project teams from the second group of academy members present their project solutions to Dow leaders, as well as to the next contingent of employees chosen to be part of the academy. Each team passed along their advice to their successors in the academy, and it struck us while we listed to them that their learnings apply to not only academy participants but to anyone seeking to collaborate, stretch and grow at their company and in their career.
Here’s some of what we heard:
Avoid solutions that are attractive only because they are obvious or easy. One team was asked to determine the theoretical limits of how much emissions can be reduced from each Dow site, plant, equipment and technology. The aim was to help Dow achieve its 2025 Operations Sustainability Goal of growing the company globally over the next decade without allowing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions to exceed its 2006 baseline.
Team members had to reach outside their area of expertise and talk with dozens of people across Dow sites to understand and catalog the possible opportunities. By asking questions and — importantly — challenging assumptions about what previously were thought to be the performance range of various technologies and equipment, the group was able to identify additional, significant opportunities for reducing emissions.
When you face challenges, remember that your vision and passion are your North Star. All the projects carried out by academy participants require engaging in complex systems and with multiple stakeholders. In this kind of environment, sustainability objectives aren’t easy to define, and decisions must be made in an information-rich environment characterized by high levels of uncertainty.
One team, tasked with reducing food waste at a Dow site as part of the company’s goal to advance a circular economy, admitted that it was easy to get lost in rabbit holes or mired in red tape. However, by being true to their vision of what was possible, and by being persistent — "no" was not an acceptable answer — they were able to find both a workable solution for composting at a Dow site and identify local groups receptive and able to receive the compost.
Make "change agent" part of your job description. There’s a saying at Erb: When it comes to sustainability in business, be prepared to invent the job you want and then go do it. In other words, don’t wait to be anointed; being a change agent is a title you can bestow upon yourself.
The same goes for participants in the academy. One group was tasked with identifying a single project that aligned neatly with Dow’s valuing nature goal; the requirements were that the project had to be good for business but even better for the natural environment. Rather than identifying just one project, members took it upon themselves to identify one project each, for a total of three. From creating sustainable prairie habitat at company headquarter and planting native grasses to reduce erosion at a Seadrift, Texas, site to waste reduction at plant in Freeport, Texas, these projects were heralded for their ability to cut emissions, rehabilitate the environment and bring business value to Dow.
As we get set to embark upon our fourth Dow Sustainability Academy, we could not be more delighted by what we have seen from those who have graduated from it. By thinking critically and creatively about sustainability’s role on the job, employees not only found answers to drive Dow’s sustainable practices but established critical leadership skills.
They learned to apply ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit to address sustainability challenges, and to respond to sustainability opportunities.
They began to see that sustainability decisions are really opportunities for setting and then achieving objectives, and that business sustainability really is a journey that will require vision, leadership and course corrections along the way.
And they found that, no matter their job titles, they actively could incorporate tools for sustainability into their jobs — and into their lives outside of work — in order to be champions for lasting, positive change.
That’s a win for employees, for Dow and Erb, and — most importantly — for society.