Q&A with DuPont Chief Sustainability Officer

Oct 20, 2016 8:45 AM ET

1. What attracted you to leave the public sector and join DuPont?

DuPont has a long history of developing sustainable solutions for a remarkable number of industries. Take food for example — DuPont solutions are at every stage of the food value chain, from seed technology that helps farmers weather droughts to innovative packaging that reduces food waste during storage and transport. In the renewable energy markets, DuPont is helping build a better solar cell. We are the leading supplier of specialty materials to the solar energy industry. Since 1975 more than half of the world’s 900 million installed solar panels contain DuPont materials. The list goes on — developing bio-based alternatives to conventional petroleum feedstocks, pioneering lightweight materials solutions to increase the efficiency of the automobile and airline industries, and providing ultra-safe materials like DuPont™ Kevlar® for people operating in harsh environments (including space!) This proven track record of innovation alone made DuPont a compelling next step in my career.

However, DuPont is also a global sustainability pioneer, among the first companies in the United States to appoint a Chief Sustainability Officer (I’m proud to say, my predecessor, Linda Fisher); sign the United Nations (UN) Global Compact, and; engage proactively on climate-related frameworks and policies. The company is deeply committed to global food security and is making significant progress against a robust set of Food Security Goals, including efforts to improve rural farmer livelihoods and educate the next generation of young farmers. Taken together, the opportunity at DuPont enables me to not only work on the front lines of science and innovation but also tackle challenges like food security that are deeply meaningful to me.

2. Sustainability is a term that can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you?

I was raised on a farm in Georgia. When you grow up working that close to the land, I think understanding the importance of sustainability comes naturally even if the term isn’t explicitly used. Farmers know the importance of balancing the needs of the land with their own needs. They also understand how tenuous that balance can be and the incredible work ethic required to preserve it. That’s the fundamental challenge of sustainability: preserving balance between the integrity of our resources and the needs of our planet’s people.

You see that need for balance reflected in things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which cover areas like economic growth, hunger and poverty, and infrastructure development as well as climate change and resource degradation. There’s a dynamic tension between some of these areas that requires unique solutions or entirely new ways of doing and making things. That’s why innovation companies like DuPont are so vital — they have the scientific and engineering know how, as well as the market knowledge, to bridge the divide between two sets of goals that might otherwise appear in competition.

3. Why are food security and sustainability so closely linked?

Achieving global food security is important to every person on this planet. It is an issue that sits at the heart of our ability to forge a sustainable future, feed a growing population, tackle climate change, and deliver long-term prosperity to an increasingly diverse base of farmers. The challenge is figuring out ways to accomplish these goals as the world’s resources become increasingly stressed.

The world’s agricultural systems must evolve to feed the estimated 9 billion people who will inhabit our planet by 2050.  The UN estimates that global food demand will increase by 60% during this time frame. Unfortunately, we are not even meeting the needs of today’s generation. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 800 million people around the world lack access to a safe and nutritious supply of food. Global agriculture absolutely must evolve to meet both current shortfalls and future demand without adding more pressure to our food systems or contributing to problems like deforestation and climate change. There really isn’t an alternative, it’s a problem we must solve.

4. Your experience in the public sector and transition into the private sector affords you a unique perspective. What are your thoughts on how global sustainability challenges like food security, climate change, and others should be tackled?

Working to move any highly complex system like global food, energy, or materials production toward a more sustainable future requires that all stakeholders have a seat at the table as well as inclusive, collaborative solutions, based on sound science and supported by relentless innovation. Our best hope for pioneering inclusive, sustainable solutions to achieve global food security, for example, requires developing agricultural production and productivity through research, advancing suitable policy frameworks at all levels, encouraging trade, and supporting efforts to reduce global food loss and waste. 

Of course, if the world needs more food we have to support our farmers. As the daughter of a multi-generational farming family, I know firsthand the day-to-day challenges and enumerable rewards of farming and how corporate and government agricultural decisions can directly impact farmers’ productivity and opportunity. As the former Deputy Secretary for the USDA, I have seen the power of smart, commonsense agricultural policies at the global, national, and local level up close. I also know that the face of agriculture is changing and that not only must we help farmers be more productive on every acre of land but that we must seek to empower a diverse and growing rank of future farmers.

5. Has anything surprised you about your new role?

So many things! DuPont is an incredibly diverse, innovative company. Our products touch almost every sector of the economy. As a result, I’ve been amazed at what a window into the transformations happening in our world this position affords me. Every day I have conversations with leaders both in and outside of the company making those transformations happen.

For example, The John Hopkins University and DuPont recently signed agreements allowing DuPont to commercialize a garment with innovative features from Johns Hopkins to help protect people on the front lines of the Ebola crisis and future deadly infectious disease outbreaks. The collaboration began in response to the humanitarian need identified by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) during the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In this region, the Ebola virus has infected more than 28,000 patients and resulted in more than 11,000 deaths. Harsh climates and ill-equipped health systems have led to tough working conditions that made it particularly difficult to keep the infections at bay. As the disease spread, many nurses, doctors and others were fatally infected by the patients they were treating. With its history of innovation in personal protective apparel, DuPont is quite literally supporting the men and women around the world fighting Ebola and other infectious diseases. That’s transformation in action!

To learn more about sustainability at DuPont, please visit www.sustainability.dupont.com