When to claim credit for sustainable products

In one sense, DuPont chief executive Chad Holliday’s recent speech announcing "market-driven" sustainability goals for revenue and R&D investment (see pp 30-33 ) is not that remarkable. It is clear that addressing climate change will drive the development of new markets into the long term, and a company’s competitiveness will increase if it takes account of this. Climate change is rapidly becoming a key influence on product innovation and marketing strategy.

DuPont is also being careful to play to its strengths. Its promised portfolio of new sustainable materials and products will include many that have a string link with safety - a traditional strong point for DuPont - rather than environmental benefits. But it will also continue to market fluorochemical refrigerants as sustainable products - albeit ones that are less powerful greenhouse gases than their predecessors.

It is also investing in genuinely innovative areas, such as "next generation" biofuels, and speaks of eventually branding many of its products so that its customers can identify and select renewable materials.

It should also be remembered that climate change will not be only - and quite possibly not the most important - business driver to steer the company’s growth over the next ten years. Many of the products that will be sought by the world’s emerging economies will be conventional and come with a significant carbon burden attached.

Certainly, when it comes to public presentation, DuPont is ahead of the game. One reason for this could be the desire of some major US companies to show the White House that they want regulation brought in to drive market development and help US companies compete globally in the scramble to mass produce climate-friendly technologies. Given that regulation is seen as inevitable sooner or later, they want to be part of the policy development process.

But declaring that you are committed to developing sustainable products has its risks. A company deserves credit for reacting quickly to emerging markets. But how it defines "sustainable" is critical. If it turns out that it is exaggerating their environmental benefits or claiming credit for simply following market demand, sooner or later its pronouncements will be exposed as greenwash. In this light, DuPont’s role in supplying fluorocarbon refrigerants looks to be an increasing embarrassment.

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