Global housekeeping

Attila Molnar says that industry must bridge the gap between ecology and economy and describes what one chemical company is doing

Sustainability is the challenge of the 21st century. It offers us a guiding principle which may initially make us all uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because it demands our long-term responsibility, and because despite our short-sighted planning horizons we cannot avoid it. Even the attitude – common in rich industrialized nations – of wanting to assess or solve the fundamental problems of newly industrializing countries from the comfort of our cosy armchairs is one which this guiding principle renders unacceptable.

Keeping up with – and where necessary cushioning – the impact of the consequences of globalization will, in future, not just be a task for governments but will also be vital for any globally active business that cannot afford to risk jeopardizing its positive image.

Sustainable development means bringing human housekeeping activities into harmony with those of nature. Companies are thus under an obligation to market products and services which achieve multiple value in both economic and ecological terms. Ecology and economy are artificial words from the same Greek root oikos, which means ‘house’ and also ‘housekeeping’. The two housekeeping systems must be balanced against each other.

How Bayer intends to do this is set out in its new Sustainable Development Report 2001. Since 1990 our production volume has increased considerably, yet, over the same period, we have achieved dramatic reductions in such key parameters as energy consumption, waste volumes, emissions and wastewater pollution. We have also improved the company’s business management indicators and firmly established our position as a world leader with regard to these criteria. We have thus managed successfully to bridge the gap between ecology and economy.

The economy can have no future unless the environment is responsibly managed, while ecology, without consideration for cost-effectiveness, endangers prosperity.

Therefore as we see it, modern- day environmental protection does not just mean producing in a way that conserves natural resources, maintaining natural retreats for animals and plants and securing the basis of food production in agriculture. It also extends to developing effective technology and implementing it at our sites worldwide. We ensure that our production is as environmentally friendly as possible and are constantly striving to improve it.

We also aim to bring new environmentally friendly products onto the market continuously. Our American subsidiary recently received the Presidential Green Challenge Award for the second time in succession. The honour was bestowed for the development of industrial coating systems based on water instead of chemical solvents – one of many examples showing that our endeavours to offer environmentally compatible products, to ensure safety in production and to handle the Earth’s natural resources as sparingly and efficiently as possible are being acknowledged.

However, a modern environmental protection approach, which takes the demands of sustainability into account, goes beyond ecology and economy. Production and products must be accepted, and meet social demands and expectations. The importance of national boundaries and national voices has waned. International companies have recognized this as a chance and used it to the full – though these developments are not universally seen as positive.

Summits and economic forums attended by national governments – such as those in Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa – have recently been accompanied by protests and riots by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other stakeholders. The recurring demand is for ecological and social dimensions to be reconciled with basic economic conditions that themselves have undergone sweeping change. These concerns are now being addressed, and will have more attention devoted to them with the help of a network of internationally operating companies. The idea of a ‘Global Compact’ – a kind of social contract between international companies and the United Nations – was suggested by Kofi Annan during the World Economic Forum in Davos. Bayer was one of the first 50 or so global players to join this United Nations initiative and, like the others, has thereby undertaken to uphold human rights and working standards and to protect the environment.

A key partner
This is just one example of the private sector’s increasingly frequent role as a key partner in solving global problems, composed, as it is, of well-organized international networks, both internal and external. In assuming this responsibility, private industry is simultaneously confronted with the demands and expectations of an international public.
The desires of stockholders must be brought in harmony with the interests of other stakeholders
Many companies are accepting this challenge. Regional and national associations and companies are strengthening their activities and contacts with intergovernmental organizations and NGOs through the International Council of Chemical Associations. They are trying to understand all perspectives and, through dialogue, to separate the realistic from the unrealistic. They seek a broad consensus to ensure that products and services offer optimum economic, social and ecological value.

This was the driving force behind the presentation of our Bayer Eco-Check to the public last year. We recognized that the success of our products would only be guaranteed in the long term if they met all-round quality criteria.

Public value
Optimization of our products is thus one of our priorities. We are initially testing and assessing our strategically important products as part of a process encompassing all the criteria which affect market success, and need to be considered before a product is marketed. We have now extended our list of assessment criteria to include a new benchmark, which we call ‘public value’. This represents the judgement of our products and services by external third parties as an equivalent criterion in the context of our tried-and-tested methods. We want to ensure acceptance of our products in this opinion-forming process. After all, our aim is to be successful across the world’s regions with their diverse cultural and legislative characteristics and consumer trends. We can only achieve this in the long term if we show appropriate consideration for these regional differences.

It is also crucial, in this process, that we take account of emotional aspects: people develop mixed feelings about organizations that they perceive as powerful, unapproachable or undemocratic.

This is one of the reasons why since 1991 we at Bayer have been so actively involved in supporting and co-organizing the chemical industry’s worldwide Responsible Care initiative. Our aim is not just to make ongoing improvements to the health, safety and environmental conditions in our plants and their surroundings, to eliminate serious accidents in our own chemical plants or to minimize the consequences, although there is no doubt that these are still important goals.

Instead, our attention is primarily focused on the ongoing dialogue to which we have committed ourselves as part of this initiative. For we take seriously the mixed feelings, reservations and fears of those outside the company – be they laypersons or experts – about our products, even in cases where we consider such emotions to be unfounded in the light of our knowledge.

There is a broad sense of unease in society and among the powerless that the problems affecting many newly industrializing countries have not got any smaller, despite decades of developmental aid and considerable technical progress, including in the area of environmental protection. Climate protection, chemical safety, the maintenance of biodiversity, the fight against poverty, feeding the world’s population, health and education are only a selection of the ultimately social issues waiting for a comprehensive solution.

Corporate citizens
The expectations placed on companies grow, in this climate of discussion, as the public waits for them to make a name for themselves as good corporate citizens.

Working to achieve these ethical principles is a fundamental part of our perception of ourselves as an international company. For example, Bayer promised the United States authorities a donation of 4 million Ciprobay® tablets – intended for postal workers and for emergency and rescue services – to combat the acute threat of anthrax.

Working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) we have also been supplying Germanin® and Lampit® – drugs with a proven track record – free of charge for an initial duration of five years as an effective means of combating sleeping sickness. This infection – transmitted by the tsetse fly, whose bite is initially perceived as harmless, is generally fatal. A drastic new increase in sleeping sickness has been observed in parts of Africa hit by civil war, particularly in the last few years. The WHO estimates that 300,000 to 500,000 people are infected with the pathogen in Central Africa and it assumes that this is increasing. There are already countries where, once again, more people are dying from sleeping sickness than from AIDS.

Against this backdrop, companies are obviously continuously weighing up legitimate interests against each other. The desires of stockholders for a share in the profit and increase in the company’s value must be brought in harmony with the interests of other stakeholders. If a company fails to do this, it is risking not only its reputation but also its social acceptance – in other words, its licence to operate.

We are therefore seeking opportunities for dialogue to discuss our corporate policy openly with our critics and supporters, and to learn and profit from their objections and suggestions. We want to offer a range of products that is accepted on this basis, and that is in keeping with the times. That is our contribution to sustainable development, to the fight against global crises and to the creation of social equilibrium and public acceptance

Dr. Attila Molnar is a member of the Board of Management of Bayer AG.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Open doors | Progress and possibilities | A further step | Achieving the vision | Wake-up call | Special feature: Security in a shrinking world | 2001 UNEP Sasakawa Environment Prize | Competition | Global housekeeping | Disrupting life’s messages | Ubiquitous and dangerous | Briefing: Much done, much still to do | Briefing: Getting on top of the POPs | Briefing: First line of defence | Reversing the burden of proof

Complementary articles in other issues:
Tom Burke: The greening of Goliath (Beyond 2000) 2000
Nat Quansah: Pharmacies for life (Poverty, Health and the Environment) 2001
Patty Stonesifer: Stopping AIDS (Poverty, Health and the Environment) 2001
AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population, waste and chemicals