|DuPont's Goal - Change Nature of Its Business|
By Harold Brubaker
September 2, 2001
Engineers at DuPont's Chambers Works last year found a
way to make an ingredient in its bullet-proof Kevlar
material using 15 percent less natural gas and
generating 45 percent less waste.
Another group at the plant along the Delaware River in
Salem County eliminated environmentally harmful solvents
from Lycra manufacturing.
And at a small DuPont factory in Newark, Del., Edward J.
Carney, a maintenance technician, made equipment
adjustments that reduced energy costs by 54 percent over
the last five years.
These are examples of a decade-long effort by DuPont Co.
to shed its legacy as an industrial giant that gulps
energy and natural resources to make products while
discharging waste - often toxic - into the ground, air
The Wilmington company says it is learning how to walk
lightly on the earth by making more profitable products
that have lower environmental costs - from raw material
to recycling. Industry calls this "sustainable growth."
But DuPont, which in recent years veered into and out of
pharmaceuticals and spun off its Conoco Inc. energy
subsidiary, is early in this process, said its vice
president of safety, health and environment, Paul Tebo.
"We are making a huge transition to a sustainable-growth
company," Tebo said, "but we still have many elements of
a cyclical company," which he described as having "large
equipment, large energy needs, and large material needs."
Sustainable growth is the latest catchphrase used by
industry to refer to successful business management that
is also environmentally and socially responsible.
DuPont, with $28 billion in revenue last year, is
prominent in the movement because Charles O. Holliday
Jr., DuPont's chief executive officer since February
1998, is chairman of the World Council of Sustainable
Development, a coalition of 150 large multinational
Reactions to DuPont's pursuit of sustainable growth
range from moderate praise to deep suspicion.
The cost-cutting moves inherent in sustainable growth
are a real plus, said Gene Pisasale, senior investment
officer at Wilmington Trust Co., DuPont's largest
shareholder. Pisasale also praised the company's moves
in recent years away from energy-intensive and
low-margin products, such as nylon and polyester.
DuPont's shares closed Friday at $40.97 and have traded
for the last 15 months at a level last seen in 1996.
Unions representing DuPont factory workers in the United
States say they worry that sustainable growth is just
another way to talk about cutting jobs. Since 1998 the
company has laid off 7,700 employees, the majority in
the nylon and polyester divisions, reducing total
employment to 90,000.
At Chambers Works, an 84-year-old plant that produces
more than 500 products, including stain protectants used
in Stainmaster carpets, the unionized workforce has
fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1989, to 800 from
Environmentalists view sustainable growth as imperative,
but greet talk about it by the likes of DuPont, Ford
Motor Co., and oil giant BP P.L.C. with skepticism.
"It seems to be the rage within the industry, but it's
just a perennial process of public relations," said Rick
Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace USA's toxics
Tebo nodded at a mention of environmentalists'
skepticism, indicating that he has heard it a thousand
times. "We learned a long time ago that the reward for
being a good environmental citizen is good business
results," he said.
"We've seen our end-of-the-pipe treatment cost come down
from about $1 billion to between $500 million and $600
million" over the last decade, said the 57-year-old
executive who started his career at Chambers Works in
Spurred by former chief executive officer Edgar S.
Woolard in 1989, DuPont cut its hazardous waste in the
United States by 43 percent from 1990 to 1999, while
increasing production by 11 percent, the company said.
DuPont has been praised widely for its 60 percent
reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions over the last
decade. Greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, methane
and ozone, are pollutants that tend to trap the sun's
heat in the atmosphere. The gases have been blamed for
causing global warming.
But Hind and Alan J. Muller, executive director of the
environmental group Green Delaware, said that cutting
waste was nothing more than good business. In addition
to cutting hazardous waste and emissions, they said,
industry should move more quickly to adopt a business
model based on renewable resources.
In a speech in March, Holliday, DuPont's chief
executive, agreed with environmentalists on the
underlying problem of business today:
"For the past decade we have been acutely aware that the
models on which we based our businesses and production
in the past were not sustainable over the long haul.
Essentially DuPont, like many other manufacturing
companies, had grown by making more 'stuff.' "
One high-profile, if cosmetic, move was to switch its
slogan in 1999 from the 65-year-old "Better Things for
Better Living" to "Miracles of Science."
Hind is unmoved by Holliday's apparent embrace of what
environmentalists have been arguing for decades.
"We remain skeptical until we see a bold plan to convert
these polluting facilities. Instead, it's like they are
fiddling around in their backyard," Hind said.
DuPont's transformation will be gradual, Tebo said. Just
as its former business, explosives, paid for the
development of diversified chemical operations in the
first half of the 20th century, so will its current
energy- and capital-intensive businesses have to supply
the cash for what is to come.
A $300 million joint venture between Dow Chemical Co.
and Cargill Inc. in Nebraska to make plastic out of corn
is an example of sustainability, Hind said, because its
feedstock is renewable and it will not generate
hazardous waste. The plant is expected to begin
operations in November.
DuPont already has products, such as Tyvek, that fit
into the sustainability model, Tebo said. On an annual
basis, houses wrapped with Tyvek save more than 10 times
the amount of energy used in manufacturing the material,
the company said.
Regardless of what DuPont will do in the future, the
company's past as one of the biggest producers of
chlorofluorocarbons and the gasoline additive tetraethyl
lead looms large for Kenny Bruno, coauthor of a 1996
book, Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate
Environmentalism, which had a chapter on DuPont.
"I believe [DuPont's] overall environmental record has
improved, largely as a result of the worldwide phaseouts
of lead gasoline additive and CFCs, two of the nastiest
widespread products modern industrial chemistry has
given us," Bruno said.
Those phaseouts happened because of government action,
Bruno said, and the company has never accepted
"responsibility for two of the worst cases of
environmental contamination ever."
Tebo acknowledged that in the 1980s DuPont was
considered an environmental laggard for its stance on
CFCs. "Any resistance we had to phasing out CFCs was
science-based," he said, adding the company believed
that many of the proposed alternatives to
chlorofluorocarbons were not safe.
Tetraethyl lead was the first product Tebo worked on at
Chambers Works, in 1968. "In those days, you couldn't
make enough TEL," which was added to gasoline to boost
the octane level, Tebo said.
Studies have shown lead to be extremely toxic,
particularly to children. Leaded gasoline was phased out
in the United States from 1975 to 1986, but DuPont
continued making TEL at Chambers Works for export until 1991.
Conditions at Chambers Works have changed dramatically
in the last three decades.
In the early 1970s, the 1,500-acre site was crisscrossed
with open ditches carrying chemical waste, said Robert
Gurecki, a 28-year DuPont veteran who is safety and
health chairman of PACE Local 2-943, which represents
812 Chambers Works employees.
"Some of the smells in that place, you couldn't even
explain to anybody," Gurecki said.
Now all the waste runs through elevated pipes to the
plant's 25-year-old wastewater treatment plant.
That plant treats 12 million to 15 million gallons of
waste a day from DuPont and other companies. Before the
water goes into the Delaware, it has to pass a fish test.
Minnows have to survive in a mixture of effluent and
river water. Bradley S. Martin, Chambers Works'
environmental manager, said he cannot recall finding a
dead minnow in that tank in a long time.