Sustainability Dispatches: Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont

Sustainability Dispatches: Dawn Rittenhouse, DuPont


This series of articles features the perspectives, experiences and objectives of individuals working for member companies of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. These people have carefully and successfully navigated the interface of business and sustainability: What are the leadership skills and qualities that support this work? What motivates the people doing it? And, how do they walk the potentially tenuous line between hardline business decision-making and sustainability goals?

Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainability for DuPont, joined the company over 36 years ago — and if anyone has mastered balancing ambitious sustainability aims with business acumen, it’s her.

Reporting to the vice president of public policy and chief sustainability officer, Rittenhouse works with DuPont’s business units to identify material issues, develop risk reduction strategies and create business strengthening opportunities.

After 13 years in DuPont’s packaging and industrial polymers division, she moved into environmental health and safety, and later to sustainability. Most recently, she received one of the inaugural World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) Leading Women Awards, which recognizes 10 women from WBCSD member companies working to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

Rittenhouse and I sat down together during GreenBiz 17 to discuss some of her experiences and perspectives related to sustainability at DuPont through the years.

Emily Grady: What are you most proud of about your role?

Dawn Rittenhouse: I’ve been in this role for 20 years and sustainability has changed a lot during that time. Back in 1997, it was all about reducing your footprint. Now, we are more focused on innovation.

We work with our R&D teams to get processes in place so that design decisions made about products early on can make them more sustainable for the long term. We have had goals all along looking at our footprint; then we developed market-facing goals, which were about the benefits of our products; and now we have innovation goals, focused on embedding sustainability into the process of designing products.

Dawn Rittenhouse receives WBCSD's Leading Women award.
<p>Dawn Rittenhouse receives WBCSD's Leading Women award.</p>

Grady: What motivates you on a day-to-day basis?

Rittenhouse: I think business can play such a positive role in bringing change because we can create and scale the solutions that will make the world more sustainable. Of course, we can’t do it alone — we need to have the polices in place to support us, along with our customers — but the fact that we can figure out there’s a way to do something better and more efficiently and we can supply the products to do so, we really are helping to create a better world. Our actions day-to-day affect whole systems.

Grady: How does sustainability factor into your personal identity?

Rittenhouse: I’m a runner. I’ve always cared about protecting land and green space. […]

Once I took on a role in sustainability, I saw parts of the company and functions that I had never seen before. For instance, I met the person who ran one of our water treatment facilities. It was fascinating to get a sense of her role and to see how proud she was about the difference she was making. In general, people want to work for companies that are doing the right thing. People come to work for DuPont because they want to make a difference in their line of work and in our products — so many of our products have provided solutions to society. This is the core of what we do.

Since DuPont is a B to B company, it is not always clear to society where our products go. And sometimes there’s a disconnect because our products can be vital to how another product functions. Many businesses depend on our products in one way or another, and it is our role to make those products in the safest and most sustainable way possible.

Grady: How is your role viewed in the company?

Rittenhouse: We have tried to position our office as core to the business. Sustainability ties into a lot of essential business questions: How do you successfully grow your business? How can we interpret societal trends to bring solutions to market faster than our competitors? What do our customers care about and how can our businesses meet these needs? […]

A few years ago, we worked with each of our businesses on tailored materiality assessments: What are your stakeholders expecting of you, and what do you need to do to be a successful business? We had them step outside of the DuPont context and pretend they were each an independent company.

This helped the business leaders think differently, considering their risks and opportunities from a new perspective. Often, businesses are extremely focused on output, aiming to meet quarterly sales and production goals. A lot of times when you finally get them into the workshop and they can step back and think about the longer term, they actually enjoy taking on a more creative perspective, such as imagining what their customers may want in five or 10 years.

Grady: What is the biggest challenge or obstacle for you when it comes to making your company more sustainable?

Rittenhouse: Business absolutely delivers real solutions to problems and needs of humanity, whether it’s reducing pollution or bringing more products to market. It’s critical that we walk the talk. We should be using our solutions and demonstrating the value. This is not always easy. Some of our businesses haven’t had reinvestment economics, so even if we know how to reduce pollution, water use or energy use, we have to justify it because the business isn’t even earning the cost of capital. This makes it tough to make a dent.

On the product side, we have a number of great solutions that the market wasn’t ready for. Bio-based materials, for example, cost a lot more than fossil-based materials. How do you get new solutions into the market and able to compete with the incumbents that are a lot cheaper? Occasionally we have to put good solutions back onto the shelf and say, "Maybe in a few years." I don’t know how to overcome that one.

Grady: What surprises you most about your role?

Rittenhouse: I love learning about something really cool that’s being driven by one of our business units that shows real leadership on sustainability, but the sustainability office had nothing to do with it. We have 10 businesses operating globally and there are lots of people who are passionate about sustainability, even if it’s not in their title.

For example, we make and sell Tyvek for protective suits, either to protect people from contamination in the environment — in the case of oil spill, for example — or to protect the product from people, such as in clean rooms in pharmaceutical companies. People wear the suits only once, and they can’t be reused because they have been contaminated by the environment, the product or the wearer. We have a team that’s started to take them back. It’s partnering with small companies to cut out the zippers and elastic, leaving us with pure Tyvek. In the worst case, it will become plastic wood, but the team is working to find better applications.

Grady: How is the sustainability landscape shifting in the U.S. at this point?

Rittenhouse: People’s expectations are becoming higher across the board. Not only does food have to taste good, but it needs to be produced responsibly. It is primarily a trend among well-educated millennials now, but it’s expanding. They’re the leading edge and pulling many more people into the mindset of having higher expectations of companies. We have to keep moving ahead if we want to stay relevant and be seen as a company with products of choice.