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For Cristina Amorim, sustainability has been an evolutionary journey.

Having spent almost a decade with Life Technologies – a life sciences company that produces a wide range of medical and research science products – which quadrupled in size through a series of mergers and acquisitions in that time, the company’s chief sustainability officer has seen multiple renditions of sustainability evolving to the next level.

“I’ve spent a decade looking at opportunities and getting sustainability initiatives off the ground that engage every employee, from the copy room to the board room,” she says. On the heels of the announcement that Thermo Fisher Scientific, a giant in life sciences research, is acquiring Life Technologies, I caught up with Amorim on what the past decade has taught her – and her employer – about setting a sustainability strategy that is evolutionary—moving from being good to being smart business.

Evaluating Sustainability: Asking the Right Question

From 2008 to 2012, the company cut energy use by 22 percent, water use by 52 percent, hazardous waste by 13 percent and CO2 emissions by 21 percent, according to its latest sustainability report. With greater growth on the horizon, can Life Technologies continue its sustainability march?

According to Amorim, that’s the wrong question.

“We’re well positioned to harvest the smart business prophecies of sustainability. There is a lot to do to reach a closed loop system and position ourselves in the circular economy. The question is: when do you know you’ve gotten there?”

“I think this is a continuous spiral with no particular end point, but constantly looking for the new frontier that the sustainability lens brings. This is not about creeping incrementalism; it’s about radical change. It’s about turning a moment into a movement, and fostering multiple movements to effect real change”

“Five years ago, no one was talking about zero waste. The economy has changed, allowing zero waste to be a financially viable undertaking. We now have five certified zero waste sites, and the movement goes on. And what would come next?” she continued. “After zero waste, we would envision a zero emissions site—one that has no emissions to air, water, or landfill.”

Now in her fifth year of sustainability reporting, Amorim has spent the better part of the last decade in an environment, health and safety role and understands the complex dynamics of Life Technologies’ Cristina Amorimmainstream products. Acknowledging that her journey has been more about challenging the status quo, she explains:

“We constantly ask questions to challenge what we have been doing. For example, can we source raw materials that are less toxic? That would create a less permitted and safer operational environment with less waste to dispose of. This in turn leads to products that are simpler and cheaper to ship, as they require less packaging, less regulated storage and fewer transportation fees. As a result, our customers will have less packaging and hazardous waste to deal with, reducing their total cost of ownership.”

When Complex Challenges of the 21st Century Meet Genetic Sequencing

So how did Amorim, who was recognized by Ethical Corporation in 2012 as Sustainability Executive of the Year and is Life Technologies’ first CSO, initiate a sustainability strategy that leverages the company’s technology in the markets it serves?

“As I see it, the entire company is the epitome of sustainability. Our genetic sequencing technology has the potential to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Just like in the 20th century, computing science turned a mainframe computer into an iPhone, in this century, life sciences is increasingly putting more DNA sequencing power into smaller devices at a lower cost – making it accessible to every scientist in the world. As sequencing is becoming democratized, scientists increasingly have the tools to transform life as we know it.”

In a world where 70 percent of available freshwater is used for agricultural irrigation, Life Technologies products have the potential to transform food economics. By re-engineering seeds, scientists can create higher-yield and drought-resistant crops.

Amorim continues, “As scientists leverage DNA sequencing technology to harvest oil from algae, biofuels will free us from extracting petroleum from the earth and tackle climate change
simultaneously. The significantly decreasing cost of sequencing the genome hastens theLifeTech_2012 development of more effective medicines, vaccines and clinical solutions that alleviate the health and economic burdens on society.”

Embedding a Cultural Shift: A Decade in the Making

As a biotechnology company, Life Technologies manufactures temperature-sensitive products requiring storage and shipment conditions ranging from -80° Celsius to ambient. Cold shipping requires expanded polystyrene (EPS) coolers and refrigerants like dry ice and gel packs, to maintain specific conditions during transport.

As the U.S.’ largest shipper of dry ice with FedEx, each year we ship 800,000 EPS coolers (equivalent to 105 truckloads) and consume 4500 metric tons of dry ice, costing $15 million in packing, refrigerant and freight. Given the poor recyclability of EPS, energy intensity of refrigerants and package weight, this represents our largest environmental impact and opportunity.

How is Life Technologies turning this challenge into an opportunity? Amorim explains, “Our strategy includes eliminating the need for coolers by converting products from cold to ambient shipping, piloting cooler reuse options, and investigating alternative materials to expanded polystyrene.”

Through a robust stability testing program, we have proven that some of our products can safely withstand ambient transport conditions. Just like transporting ice cream from the supermarket to your home freezer– we don’t carry a cooler or dry ice in our trunk.

“So far we’ve converted genetic analysis, sequencing, cell culture and molecular biology reagents, top-selling capillary electrophoresis and transfection reagents. The impact has been significant—each year, we now ship 250,000 fewer EPS coolers (33 fewer truckloads), use 2400 fewer metric tons of refrigerant, and save $4 million in operational costs globally. Most importantly, we know our packaging becomes our customers’ waste. These product conversions help us leave less branded garbage in their hallways.

Of course, the effort requires engagement across multiple functions. “From R&D to distribution and sales & marketing, everyone has a part to play. We tapped into natural leaders across these functions to become ambassadors for these initiatives. It provided them with visibility and career growth opportunities. They are delivering cost savings, protecting the environment and feeling good about it,” she added.

The Externalities: Collaborating with Suppliers

While these examples prove a significant point about how sustainability thinking can shift mindsets on profit, purpose and business value across organizations, what about Life Technologies’ external supply chain? With over 50,000 products and complex transportation cycles, how is the company addressing sustainability in its supply chain?

“I have a hard time understanding the traditional concept of ‘greening the supply chain.’ Asking hundreds of suppliers to fill out forms and check boxes provides no tangible value. We could never understand how to take action on that supplier data,” Amorim explained. “Instead, we find more value in partnering with key suppliers.”

One example is Kimberly-Clark. On the path to zero waste, Amorim and her team went dumpster diving one morning to understand their waste streams. What they found was a sea of blue and
purple  latex gloves.

We approached the glove supplier, Kimberly-Clark, who partnered with us to implement a glove take-back program. It started in one location and has today expanded to five. We segregate the gloves at the point of use and Kimberly-Clark sends them to TerraCycle, who turn them into purple park benches. This partnership provides true value—glove take-back helped us achieve our zero waste goal and helped Kimberly-Clark increase their revenue by becoming our sole glove supplier globally.

Take Back: Turning Obligation into Opportunity

The circular economy has arrived. That is what excites Amorim, one of very few female CSOs in the private sector. “The regulatory environment is also helping us close the loop. The WEEE [Waste Electric Electronic Equipment] legislation in Europe is one example,” says Amorim.

WEEE institutionalizes the cradle-to-cradle concept as a means of keeping electronic equipment containing heavy metals out of landfills. “Wouldn’t you like it if Maytag removed your dishwasher at the end of its life? I can’t move it and it doesn’t fit in my trashcan. In Europe, we now have to set up a take-back scheme for all of our instruments. How can this be done profitably?”

“We realized that by taking instruments back only to recycle the parts was a cost burden. Instead we bring them back to refurbish certain product lines for resale, harvest high-value parts to be used on service calls, and responsibly recycle what’s left.”

For Life Technologies and other companies, refurbished instruments open up an entire new market. At a lower price point, instruments such as DNA sequencers are more accessible to more scientists. And with increased revenue, the WEEE obligation becomes an opportunity.

While issues like cold chain shipment, waste, and regulatory compliance present thorns on the way to the gilded goal of a closed-loop model for Life Technologies, triangular connections in its supply chain and their appetite for cutting-edge innovation leads one to believe the opportunities are endless for Amorim and her team.

As the exuberant sustainability chief concludes, “We’re aiming for radical.”

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on July 22, 2013.