Unboxing chemicals

23:41 PM | March 18, 2013

Dow Chemical chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris offered a provocative thought upon receiving the Society of Chemical Industry American section’s Chemical Industry Medal last week in New York. “I must say, I hope I am one of the last to receive it,” Liveris said. “At least, under its current name.”

The word chemistry brings to mind a noble pursuit for those in industry. “The combining and recombining of 118 elements to create something new and powerful,” Liveris said. “But at the same time, chemical—the adjective—is no longer, in my view, big or broad enough to describe the industry we love, the work we do, or the future we seek to build.”

Too many view chemicals as the extent of what industry does. “We believe that we are simply in the commodity chemicals business—or only in the specialty chemicals business,” Liveris said. The terms are outdated and confine industry “within a box,” Liveris said. “If we let others define us and our work too narrowly—or even worse, if we define ourselves and our own work too narrowly—then we are going to miss out on the opportunities.”

Industry is critical to solving the pressing challenges of improving quality of life, feeding a growing global population, and decreasing carbon footprint, he argues. “The most meaningful work is not done—and cannot be done—within a chemical industry that is siloed. It happens when we collaborate across boundaries, across industries, across markets and value chains, across disciplines, across all discontinuities.”

To achieve this, industry will have to do a better job helping people understand the role it plays in driving progress. “Our industry is still misjudged, misaligned, and misrepresented,” Liveris said. “And, if we are being honest with ourselves, that is partially our fault. Over the decades, we have not done enough to lead on issues of transparency and sustainability.”

Industry has evolved through what Liveris calls “the four Ds.” He explained, “We have gone from denying that problems concerning safety, pollution, and sustainability exist, to being defensive about them, to debating them. And now, we are engaged in a dialogue about them.” Industry has a stronger case today, helped by collaborative outreach efforts such as Responsible Care, an initiative Dow helped launch in Canada in 1992. US Responsible Care companies have reduced their collective recordable injury rates by 76% since 1990 and greenhouse gas intensity by 18% since 1992, Liveris said.

“While we focus on seeing a return on financial capital, let us add a focus on achieving returns on our human capital,” Liveris said. “If it were up to me, maybe we would not be called the chemical industry anymore—or this, the Chemical Industry Medal. We might call this the World of Chemistry Award—or, dare I say it, the Human Element Award, because it would celebrate the human element of an industry that positively impacts all humanity.”