Resources Article

Greening the Global Economy: Roles for Business and Government. An Interview with Linda Fisher

Sep 10, 2014 | Linda J. Fisher

With a career that has taken her to the top levels of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the global company DuPont, RFF Board Member Linda Fisher has worked to progress corporate environmental performance from within and without. Resources recently sat down with Fisher, currently the vice president of DuPont Safety, Health, and Environment and the company’s chief sustainability officer, to explore business and government perspectives on some of the major environmental issues of our time.

Resources: How has your time in government influenced how you approach your current job at DuPont?

Linda Fisher: I would say it’s influenced me in three significant ways. Probably the most obvious is that I have a very keen appreciation of why people at EPA make the decisions they do. I understand the flexibility or inflexibility of the laws and regulations they have to administer and make decisions by. I understand the resource challenges, public pressure, and public perceptions that influence how they might approach public policy issues—or a company like DuPont. This helps me think through how DuPont can best engage and interact with the agency.

Second, because EPA is a government agency, by definition I had to listen carefully to the opinions and information people bring from all sides of an issue. That includes other government agencies, Congress, the NGO community, and a whole range of civil society that has a stake in decisionmaking. I have been able to bring a sensitivity to all those perspectives into DuPont, engaging the company to reach out to constituencies it otherwise might not have realized were important.

A third influence from my time in government is that I have a strong sense of how a company like DuPont can innovate to bring market solutions to the environmental challenges that EPA is grappling with.

Resources: What are some of these innovations, and what business opportunities does DuPont see in the future green economy, if you envision one?

Fisher: The green economy offers huge opportunities for science and innovation-based companies. If you are investing as an industry in new, disruptive technologies, then a carbon-constrained world or a green economy creates the opportunity to grow businesses that might not have been envisioned just a few years ago. But greening the economy does not necessarily offer growth opportunities for companies that are not investing in innovation. This difference in approaches helps explain the tension in how corporate America views green energy, carbon pricing, and other environmental innovations and regulations.

At DuPont, where we pride ourselves on our science and innovation, we see green energy as an opportunity. We are investing in advanced biofuels, improved longevity and efficiency of solar technology, and reduced use of petroleum through improved energy efficiency, to name a few areas.

Resources: The push for a greener economy is being driven by not just regulatory strategies in the United States but markets all across the world. How has being a global company affected DuPont’s environmental strategies?

Fisher: We are tracking what I will call “sustainability trends.” For instance, what are the issues and pressures around water in the countries in which we want to operate? What are the pushes for energy efficiency or more regulation around toxic substances in the past several years? What are the changing trends in product regulation? Many trends have not hit in the United States yet or are hitting in fits and starts—for example, the push for zero waste to landfills. DuPont’s sustainability, product regulatory, and product stewardship teams are the eyes and ears for these kinds of practices, and they bring them back and work with our businesses on them.

We also track regulation as it evolves globally. Around the world, many governments are talking about strict regulation of different technologies, but the question is, when will they act? What will the regulations look like?

DuPont is feeling more market pressure around some of the sustainability metrics, such as the greenhouse gas footprint of our manufacturing process and our water use. We are constantly surveyed by hundreds of companies for the absence or presence of certain chemicals in our products. These are pressures—beyond just regulation— that we face as a corporate producer and seller of goods into the global marketplace.

Resources: How does the role of a strong regulatory backstop compare to these other forces that may promote strong environmental performance? Is it realistic to expect the private sector to take environmental performance into account without regulatory prompting? As you know, there has been a lot of talk of corporations taking the lead in environmental performance and maybe even getting out ahead of government.

Fisher: One is not a substitute for the other; both are important. I have said frequently that the private sector cannot make up for the absence or the failure of sound government policy. But what the private sector is doing is meaningful and should not be ignored.

Is the private sector out ahead of the government? It depends on what government and in what way. I would say that in many instances, the private sector is moving ahead to develop technical solutions to environmental problems.

At DuPont, that means we are investing to improve solar cells, for example, to drive their prices down and make them achieve grid parity sooner. We are doing that in the face of what I will call “uneven” government policy globally pushing for solar energy.

More broadly, many in industry are trying to improve their own energy efficiency and bring products to market that will improve the energy efficiency of their value chain. Government policy and energy pricing are part of the driving force for this shift.

Would uniform policies help? Yes. Would a carbon regulatory regimen help? Yes, that’s why DuPont was one of the founding members of the US Climate Action Partnership, calling on the federal government to enact regulation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not as though 100 percent of industry is playing from a competitive point of view; regulation is important.

Resources: What do you think are the best opportunities for reforming US environmental policy?

Fisher: Much of environmental policy was developed to prevent harm by preventing pollution, and it has been successful and needs to be there. I think the next question is how to use environmental policy coupled with energy or agricultural policy to induce the innovation needed to solve the growing world’s demand.

Partly, we as a leading nation need some kind of climate legislation to drive more consistent long-term greenhouse gas reductions and foster more aggressive adoption of new technologies. We have not begun to really think about how we are going to deal with water. Another issue is food—how are we going to produce enough food in a sustainable way to feed the world?

If you look at agriculture, EPA has jurisdiction over water quality and pesticides. That jurisdiction is important, but it doesn’t provide the answers for how we’re going to nutritionally feed a growing population globally.

So looking at the mega-challenges of our time, how do you get the agencies to think beyond protecting citizens of the world from certain pollutants, which is important, but then to foster solutions to the food security, energy, water, and transportation needs? I would like to see the government play a more active role, but in a sense, it is beyond its statutory mandate today, and that is a challenge.