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After more than a decade of negotiations, there’s news today that Dow Chemical has agreed to clean up 1,400 residential properties in Midland, Mich.

The root cause: A Dow Chemical plant located in Midland, also home to its headquarters, responsible for polluting the area with dioxin for a better part of the late 1990s.

Dow Chemical has had a long history of pioneering research and innovation in sustainability, from collaborating with nonprofits on driving solutions — it was named one of the most sustainable companies in Brazil in 2011 — to industry-wide partnerships on reducing their products’ environmental footprint.

But no number of accolades or ratings can hide the immense environmental and social footprint of the company’s operations, domestically or internationally. Or as many would opine, help erase a history of soil, air and water contamination.

So, how does the chemicals giant prioritize sustainability to drive its long term business plan? And how are these complex social and environmental challenges defining this strategy? Neil Hawkins, Dow Chemical’s VP for Sustainability & EH&S offers some insights:

Top Sustainability Challenges of 2011:

1. Accounting for the value of nature

We’re entering a new phase of integrating the value of nature into the corporate balance sheet through a breakthrough 5-year collaboration with The Nature Conservancy. This partnership will determine the value of ecosystems to Dow’s operations.

Scientists from both organizations are developing tools and testing models together that we will eventually share with other companies and the science community. In early 2012, we will issue a public progress report on the collaboration, as well as a broader update on Dow conservation projects around the globe.

2. Market adaptation to sustainable solutions and innovation

There is a significant divide between environmental and social issues, and the appetite of markets to adapt, and sometimes pay, for new solutions that address these issues. Bringing innovation to market is a costly proposition filled with economic and political volatility, lack of clear and consistent regulation, and lack of guarantees for ROI.

Despite these headwinds, we are addressing megatrends and challenges by staying focused on our mission and values, and through unwavering investment in our innovation pipeline.

Aspirations for 2012: Where does CSR / Sustainability fit?

In 2010, Dow passed the midpoint of its second set of 10-year sustainability goals – the 2015 Sustainability Goals.

In 2012, we will work on our next set of goals, building on the momentum of the past 20 years, and find ways to drive Dow’s science and people into unprecedented areas of leadership, collaboration, innovation and change.

These goals serve as a strategic guide for leveraging business to address global challenges from accelerating urbanization, rapid population growth and increasing demands on natural resources. Prioritizing the safety and wellbeing of Dow people will also always be at the core of how we measure success.

With sustainability at the root of our mission, vision, and values, sustainability and CSR don’t just “fit” in – they drive decision-making, investment choices, hiring practices, and employee engagement at Dow.

Sustainability, in particular the pursuit of more sustainable chemistry, also gives our innovation engine a clear target.

Predictions: Extracting Business Value from Sustainability

Companies will become more proficient at extracting business value from sustainability commitments and practices

The chemical industry, among others, will continue to move beyond sustainability as an obligation driven by outside forces, toward uncovering tangible economic value that drives both top and bottom line growth.

The economic value of sustainable development can and should influence all decision-making – including capital investments, recruiting, marketing, product design, R&D and service functions. Companies will need to become savvy life cycle practitioners, innovators and collaborators.

By looking externally at unique partnerships, and internally at deeply integrated sustainability through employee engagement and accountability, companies will unlock new areas for growth by harnessing the value of sustainability.

The critical role chemistry plays in solving world challenges will continue to move to center stage.

Our world is facing pressing challenges including water supplies, energy sources and affordable housing. Mitigating the impacts of these challenges and managing our natural resources worldwide requires the manufacturing industry, and in particular, the chemical industry, to play an enabling role by discovering and implementing new technologies.

Chemistry is fundamental to our lives. It enables more than 96 percent of all manufactured products.

As a company, we’re committed to driving innovative solutions through chemistry, such as the POWERHOUSE Solar Shingle, which transforms a typical house into a dynamic power generator.

Then there are efforts such as the United Nations’ 2011 International Year of Chemistry that put the power of chemistry on a global stage.

But more attention is needed to accelerate science-based solutions, increase collaboration, and attract new generations into rewarding STEM careers – where the problems of today and tomorrow will ultimately be solved.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary sectionTalkback on February 17, 2012.