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Need sustainability advice? This company has used external experts for 30 years

External advisory groups for sustainable business practices are still relatively rare. Dow's Sustainability External Advisory Council, or SEAC, was a first in the petrochemical industry.

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1992. The Cure’s "Friday I’m in Love" is on the radio. Bill Clinton is about to be elected to the presidency over George H.W. Bush and an insurgent Ross Perot. The term "surfing the internet" is coined.

It was the year — roughly 30 years ago — that Dow’s first council of external experts tasked with advising the company on environmental issues came to be.

Needless to say, most corporations weren’t engaging seriously on environmental issues in 1992, let alone asking independent advisers to guide their decisions around them. The Sustainability External Advisory Council —  or SEAC, as it’s now known (originally, the Corporate Environmental Advisory Council) — was a first in the petrochemical industry. While internal sustainability councils and executive boards are now common, external advisory groups are still a relative rarity. Another example is Trane Technologies’ Advisory Council on Sustainability

Today, Dow’s SEAC has seven members plus chair Andre Argenton, the company’s vice president of environment, health and safety, and chief sustainability officer — a longtime leader at Dow who has just completed his first year in the role.

While cynics may imagine a cabal of yes-men and yes-women validating Dow’s sinister whims with a wink and a nod, SEAC’s membership is diverse, their expertise legitimate and verifiable. 

One member, on board since 2014, is John Warner, an originator of the field of green chemistry. Another rockstar, Isabel Studer, is director of Alianza University of California-Mexico and the former executive director for Mexico and Northern Central America at The Nature Conservancy. 

Group members are compensated ("based on the time and dedication they provide us," Argenton told me), and they are chosen for the relevance of their perspective and expertise to Dow’s material issues and global territories. Outside of an annual 2.5-day meeting, Argenton engages directly with each member for guidance "at least once a year for sure, more likely twice." 

The group has helped set the vision, scope and ambition — and vitally, says Argenton, recommended specific external partners — for Dow’s public sustainability goals since the company’s first foray in 2005. Currently, the SEAC is supporting the comprehensive redesign of Dow’s water strategy, as well as the company's goal-setting around nature and biodiversity as its 2025 goals come due. 

I spoke with Argenton to find out the secret to the advisory council’s longevity. He paints a compelling portrait of a council valuable enough to Dow that it’s lasted 30 years — and could last 30 more.

Dylan Siegler: You’re about a year into your tenure as CSO. How do you work with the Sustainability External Advisory Council (SEAC)?

Andre Argenton: I know you asked about the last 12 months, but my very first exposure to SEAC was over 10 years ago, probably 15. I was a research leader [at Dow Chemical], and I was invited to present to the SEAC how we were thinking about safer materials and biodegradation, with a very strong technical emphasis. In the circle, we had deep technical experts in biodegradation. But they challenged me [from a different angle], asking: "Who was I engaging with in the external world? Which customers were we working with?" I remember this question: "When you look at your customers, and where this technology is going to be deployed, what is their view of sustainability?"   

Siegler: Can you give an example of a decision or framework that they’ve supported you on recently?

Argenton: We were one of the very first few companies, if not the first company in our sector, to have a goal that values nature in our business decisions. That was a direct recommendation from SEAC — not only "do this, it makes sense," but they helped us agree that it was the right thing to do. Then they helped us define what the goal should be and had direct input on what should be the pragmatic approach, which methods we should develop and who we should partner with in developing methodologies to ensure that whatever we will do for the next decade was verifiable, and that it was value-creating to us and to society.

Siegler: What do you think Dow gains from engaging with the group in this way?

Argenton: We value their candid input. There is not a single meeting where they don’t challenge us [to] be bolder, go faster. And that pushes us. We value their diversity of thought: They all come from different backgrounds and a diversity of [geographies]. We have them to challenge us, to guide us, to advise us, to tell us if we’re thinking through a problem in a non-holistic way, and that input makes us stronger. It’s really important that when you decide to have an organization like SEAC, to do it with the intent to say, "I’m going to be transparent about everything. My challenges, my strengths, my concerns." And create an environment where they feel encouraged or rewarded to be candid and transparent. Because from that we grow.

Siegler: Have there been instances where you’ve made decisions against their advice?

Argenton: The decisions we make as a company require a much bigger picture of everything in the ecosystem — and they are not the sole organization that guides us. The complexity of these decisions is such that we get input from SEAC, we get input from internal stakeholders, we get input from customers, we get input from the community advisory panel, and from the universities we work with on the technology side. And from that combined set of inputs, that is how we make our decisions. (Editor’s note: Dow’s Community Advisory Panels are groups of individuals who live near or around a chemical facility and meet regularly. The majority of Dow sites have such groups.) 

Siegler: Given that you do have all of those stakeholder groups that you’re dealing with and managing, is the SEAC always useful? Or does it sometimes feel like just another stakeholder group that you need to answer to?

Argenton: Let me put it into practical terms: I am yet to miss a meeting with them over other priorities. I deeply care about what they have to tell me even when it’s, "Oh, all right, I understand, we’ve got to go faster on this one. Thank you." And I think the value that they bring to the company is not to me or to the sustainability organization, it’s to the company.

Siegler: What advice would you give companies that want to start a group like this?  

Argenton: I think the first [piece of advice] is that it is worth it. A company will get the value from an external group if you align that group’s expertise to your material issues as a company. Also, it’s not free. I’m not talking about the compensation — it’s that you get as much out of it as you put into it. You need to do the pre-work, you need to keep them educated and knowledgeable about your company, you need to find ways to embed them with your company.

Siegler: What would the last 30 years at Dow have looked like without SEAC?  

Argenton: Without them, we would not have the leadership position that we believe we have in sustainability. Every strategic decision that we’ve made in matters of sustainability had their input. They add to the strength and the robustness of our strategy and our commitments and goals — and the role of the council will remain just as critical in the future as it has over the last 30 years.  

If your company has an external advisory group supporting sustainability, we’d love to hear about it. Reach out to me on LinkedIn.

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