Using Environmental Knowledge Systems at DuPont
The challenges to managing environmental information in a corporation include anticipating the ebb and flow of environmental issues, identifying those issues that are most likely to have a lasting effect, and addressing their restrictive or opportunistic effects on the company. For example, in the late 1980s public opinion of the chemical industry was at an all-time low. There were frequent negative articles in the mainstream press, significant public outrage stimulated by local newspaper reports of environmental incidents, and a high degree of government and academic skepticism. Environmental activists were scaling buildings, occupying sites, disrupting annual meetings, and calling for boycotts.
For DuPont it was a period of awakening to some real problems. The situation was not conducive to conducting business or attracting quality professionals. The company began to recognize that the public’s expectations regarding environmental matters were strategic to its success. It was also becoming clear that end-of-the-pipe laws and treatment technologies, prescribed by government in response to public concern and environmental issues, were leading to increased use of capital and engineering personnel for purposes that did not generate revenue. DuPont’s cost for compliance was increasing at about 7 percent per year and totaled about $1 billion per year—a staggering amount of money to spend on activities that did not produce products or technology. This amount was even more staggering because it was almost equal to the entire research and development (R&D) budget of the company.
Addressing the challenges of the environmental arena, however, turned out to be easier said than done. The sheer volume of information on environmental issues was daunting at best. DuPont was in a “target-rich” environment, with
thousands of issues that potentially could be addressed. To make any progress, it became clear that the company needed to prioritize the most critical issues and then develop a common lexicon that could be used to institutionalize its environmental commitment. Over the course of a year, the company went through a very difficult process that resulted in the development of a set of environmental goals (Box 1) and a corporate commitment statement (Box 2).
Through this process, DuPont was able to translate its environmental priorities into statements that managers at every level could use to make operational decisions. Ultimately, this process resulted in the focus of DuPont’s environmental activities shifting from remediation to pollution prevention. Box 3 shows the company’s environmental efforts that are focused on pollution prevention. With the development of standardized treatment and remediation technologies along with the shift to preventive strategies, DuPont’s compliance has remained excellent, and its environmental costs have decreased. However, with this evolution has come a whole new range of challenges and opportunities for managing information to address the company’s environmental priorities.
ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION TOOLS
In environmental programs, information overload is an ongoing challenge that DuPont is addressing in a variety of ways. Box 4 shows the technologies that
SOURCE: DuPont (1997).
Highest standards of performance, business excellence
SOURCE: DuPont (1997).
are being used to facilitate the exchange of information and to help DuPont’s technology organizations integrate the company’s environmental priorities into their day-to-day work. Although publications, e-mail networks, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing remain the communication workhorses, external and internal Web-like systems and shared electronic environments are rapidly gaining considerable use.
One example is a system DuPont calls “Having Everything About Remediation Technology,” or HEART. HEART is a CD-ROM-based information system that serves as a central source of information on all of the company’s remediation technologies. A significant drawback to the information being on CD-ROM, however, is that it cannot be updated readily. The company also has two information databases, on wastewater biotreatment and heavy-metals containment technologies, that are available on internal mainframe computers and easily updated. Both the CD-ROM and the databases are focused on meeting the company’s pollution control and remediation needs. Users of both systems are provided with calculation procedures, strength and weakness analyses of various choices, and default recommendations.
On the pollution prevention front, DuPont is codifying environmental knowledge by incorporating environmental “learning” into its product preapproval procedures. This is done through the Product and Cycle-time Excellence (PACE) system, which integrates environmental considerations into each of the four or five review stages that a new product goes through (referred to as “gates” by Graedel, this volume). At each stage, PACE is used to assess a product’s viability on the bases of cost, quality, safety, and potential return on investment. As learning progressed, environmental criteria have been added. Plant designers use a similar checklist when reviewing process designs. The company is also actively looking for ways to extend this approach farther upstream into its R&D efforts.
CHALLENGES IN SHARING REMEDIATION AND POLLUTION PREVENTION INFORMATION
As DuPont’s strategic environmental efforts shifted from remediation to pollution prevention, the type of information needed and the nature of information exchange also changed. Information about remediation and treatment technologies was shared easily through broad industry links and developments with
other companies. It was nonproprietary and highly specific. Information about pollution prevention, however, is more broadly based and involves (in many instances) the redesign of basic production processes. This information can be highly proprietary, which often conflicts with right-to-know requirements and public access to information.
For example, DuPont makes a product called Tyvek®, a nonwoven fabric material used to make various products, including disposable garments, high-security envelopes, and insulation to wrap buildings. The environmental good news is that Tyvek® is made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and contains a significant fraction of postconsumer recycled materials (DuPont used recycled HDPE milk jugs as its raw material for Tyvek®). However, there was once a serious problem with manufacturing Tyvek®, because the original process used chlorofluorocarbon solvents—chemicals banned in developed countries by the Montreal Protocol. DuPont had two options: Get out of the business or find an alternative. Finding an alternative was a monumental task that took some break-through efforts on the R&D front. Indeed, DuPont’s leading competitor was unable to solve the problem, and the information about the new process had to be guarded very carefully. Some of the information was soon divulged, however, when DuPont was required to file a revised air permit and submit a new Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) report under the Environmental Protection and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). This gave the competition key information about the new process. In this particular case, access to TRI-related information was not in DuPont’s interest.
However, such access is a two-way street, and in other cases DuPont has used publicly available environmental information about other companies to find potential customers. DuPont’s pursuit of zero-emission plants is illustrative. In December 1984, a tragic explosion in Bhopal, India (at a facility not connected with DuPont), released large quantities of methylisocyanate (MIC). The shutdown of existing MIC plants for safety checks meant that every product based on MIC was potentially out of business. MIC shipments ceased, and there was a possibility that MIC permits would not be reissued. DuPont raced to develop a process that would manufacture MIC on demand to be consumed immediately (and as needed) in the next chemical step. The resulting process required no transportation, loading, unloading, or storage and had a total in-process MIC inventory of about one pound. The new approach came close to zero emissions and zero hazard, and, indeed, the technology concept became a key strategy for DuPont. The company drove lessons learned from this effort into other businesses, where the concept has become a core competency for producing chemicals such as hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and MIC. The competency that developed as a result of this experience is now considered a business opportunity. DuPont can access public information in the EPCRA listing and TRI reports to identify other companies that are handling hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and MIC. DuPont can then approach them as potential customers for the new technologies.
MEETING THE INFORMATION CHALLENGE
Despite much progress, there is still a lot of room for improving the collection and dissemination of environmental information, both within and beyond the corporate structure. At DuPont, diverse information systems are being used successfully to address many environmental issues, and there is a strong commitment to continue developing and improving this capacity. However, it is important to note that many of these systems address the needs of specific business units, and their relevance to a wider arena is limited. Indeed, this lack of broad application points to a significant issue in environmental decision making.
In industry as a whole, there is a critical need for the development of basic knowledge about environmental impacts. The systems to deliver information are becoming more sophisticated, but they cannot reach their potential until the information itself is better developed. Companies need useful information in a number of areas, such as methods for product life-cycle assessment, data on persistent and bioaccumulative materials, and distinctions between chemicals that are environmentally desirable and those that are not. Perhaps most importantly, there is a need for prioritization on a national level, detailing the types of information companies must have and the protocols for obtaining it.
Consensus on these and other issues will require collaboration between industry and government, and the information must be scientifically valid, publicly accepted, and easily accessible. After all, the information that is collected will determine what and where action is taken to improve environmental performance.
E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (DuPont). 1997. DuPont Safety, Health, and Environment: 1996 Progress Report. Wilmington, Del.: DuPont.