Dow Sustainability Director Julie Zaniewski kicks off this conversation series by sharing insights into how the chemical giant is shaking up business as usual to deliver solutions.
Sustainability is truly, and finally, having its moment — from unprecedented corporate decarbonization commitments to greater consumer demand for sustainable products.
Yet, how to support, sustain and scale this work remains shrouded in mystery for many organizations. With the climate clock ticking, it is going to take extraordinary alignment of people, players and big business toward shared goals to build a viable path forward.
Partnerships are paramount; and strategic engagements with peers, competitors and non-traditional players present endless possibilities for organizations to reach beyond their normal realm of work and capabilities. In recognition of this vital dynamic, this article is the first in a series of spotlights on atypical collaborations and the proofs of concept that are changing the world.
In this interview, Dow Sustainability Director Julie Zaniewski kicks off this conversation series to unearth how the chemical giant is shaking up business as usual to deliver solutions.
Dow just hit its 125th anniversary — a rare and major milestone for a business. How do you and your colleagues stay fresh and continue to rethink historic, linear approaches and move a giant organization toward circularity?
JZ: Many people ask themselves, “How do you drive change throughout an organization without having to push?” Instead, I think you should focus on creating pull.
That is one of the reasons I left my 20-year career in consumer packaging development and moved to Dow. As an individual, I have the ability to make changes with small actions. As a team member of a large organization, those small actions can be multiplied and create a much larger overall impact. And Dow’s placement in the value chain means they are a large provider to a significant part of the economy; and that is a tremendous platform for fresh, creative innovation — one of Dow’s core values.
When you are trying to fix a waste challenge, it's much more effective and impactful to be able to do it from the inside out, right? And that is where having change agents within the organization helps you create the most impact. You could do it on the perimeter and create that push from the outside in, but when you find organizations that are ready for transition, that seem committed to developing solutions, being part of that organization can make a much bigger difference.
What are the biggest gaps in circularity right now? Where are the opportunities?
JZ: Industry giants who want to remain risk averse are part of the lingering gap in shifting toward circularity. We need these large companies to make impactful changes and sustainable shifts to address that gap and create a self-sustaining system. Often, self-sustaining models involve more than one entity; so you're trying to convince Organization A to spend more in one area so that Organization B can do this, and Organization C can do that.
There is some movement in terms of having a collective agreement, but it is usually on a small scale — we need this agreement on a large scale to see true transformation.
If we are looking to create economies of scale, are there partnerships out there that can help?
JZ: At Dow, our approach to partnerships is evolving as we become more innovative and inclusive in terms of who is at the table. Ten years ago, if we had this conversation, I would never have thought to consider several of the partnerships we see today in this space. For example, a pre-competitive coalition for recycling including brands, retailers, material manufacturers, recyclers and investment funds would have been a most unconventional thought a decade ago. It is now becoming the norm.
The unconventional partners we are bringing to the table are imperative as they ensure diversity of thought and critical skill sets. There is a recognition that you don't have to stay in your lane to solve problems and create opportunity for your organization.
However, as we have seen in the last couple of years — where specific societal needs were obvious and came into play — a resourcefulness has developed within organizations, enabling them to identify and source non-obvious solutions.
Take ventilators, for example: Whole automobile manufacturing systems were converted to meet the demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This “outside the box” approach breeds opportunity — beyond responding to an immediate need, this innovative thought process can help bring different ideas and approaches to scale.
What are some of the best partnership examples and opportunities in circularity right now?
JZ: Closed Loop Partners with their various investment funds present an excellent example of partnerships across the value chain by identifying gaps and creating self-sustaining, systemic solutions. Different investment vehicles can be utilized for public and private entities to gain access to catalytic capital. What they've also been able to do — and this is one reason why we see them as a great partner — is identify those needs in different spaces quickly and effectively, providing a speed-to-market approach for recycling solutions.
Closed Loop has been especially successful at bringing together industry competitors. In May 2021, Dow and two other leading plastics and materials science companies — LyondellBasell and NOVA Chemicals — established the Closed Loop Circular Plastics Fund to invest in scalable recycling technologies, equipment upgrades and infrastructure solutions.
The Recycling Partnership is also an excellent example of driving and scaling pre-competitive solutions. They drive on-the-ground, community aspects that businesses are sometimes rather far removed from. They help answer questions like:* “How is Jane Doe taking her used flexible bags and disposing of them? What are the challenges that she faces in recycling those bags? Does she want to recycle? What are her motivations?”* The Partnership brings insights into solution building and provides Dow with the opportunity to step in and help scale change.
Encouraging people to prioritize sustainability can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. How do you stay encouraged and, in turn, pull others toward sustainable solutions?
JZ: It comes back to how can I, as an individual, do something good and feel like I'm doing something meaningful? And it could be that simple.
I have worried to some extent that people would lose sight of the importance of sustainability because there have been so many other things to worry about in the last several years. But then I go on my neighborhood social media page and see that people are still commenting on the basics: that they don't have enough recycling bins or collection from their municipality. I realized that it's almost as if people are coming back to that as something that makes them feel normal — and things like individual action for sustainability brings back a sense of community.
People are recognizing existing sustainability issues and the need for better infrastructure, and they are also calling for and identifying meaningful solutions. By creating change in your community, you become part of the collective chipping away at bigger societal issues. Resolving these changes make them — all of us really — feel the normalcy that has been missing from our daily lives.
So, let’s start there: getting the basics right — so, as a whole, we can build toward scalable change. There is no turning back — only moving forward.