Why does a giant chemical company that made $1.8 billion last year with such products as bullet-stopping Kevlar and Nomex, a flame-resistant fiber, care about corporate social responsibility? Chad Holliday, DuPont's chairman and CEO, thinks it's the way to stay ahead globally. He spoke with TIME's ERIC ROSTON last month.
TIME "Corporate social responsibility" is quite a mouthful.
HOLLIDAY If I was going to name it, I wouldn't name it that.
TIME What would you call it?
HOLLIDAY Aw, shoot ... "Sustainable growth"? That's the phrase we use. We have "sustainable growth" reviews every year that track the life cycle of our products. We want to know what our products are doing three steps downstream and how they are eventually recycled back into the environment. It's much more efficient if you look at the total life cycle instead of what happens at one manufacturing plant.
TIME How did DuPont "get religion"?
HOLLIDAY My predecessor said we can't take the leadership role we have in the world if we don't find ways of reducing the amount of stuff we put out in the environment. And we're not reducing pollution in the U.S. by increasing it someplace else. We operate with the same standards in China, India or Turkey that we do in the U.S. In the late '90s we had meetings with activist groups. Jimmy Carter came in for a round of the dialogues. It became so obvious from those talks that there were big problems to be solved. Our science, properly applied, could really play a role there.
TIME Are many other companies pursuing these changes?
HOLLIDAY There's growing momentum. Enron and then the Sarbanes-Oxley law really made boards and management teams much more sensitive to their own impact, what they're doing and how they're perceived. All this has been a positive step in the right direction. Maybe it's not the most efficient way to get [reform], but I think overall [the Enron episode] made companies more responsible about what they're doing. Would people call that corporate social responsibility? Probably not.
TIME What's your take on climate change?
HOLLIDAY All of a sudden the debate is back on the table. We need to start taking prudent steps. We need to be planning an energy policy that leads us to a very different energy mix 50 years from now. It needs to be a well laid out plan phased in over several decades, as opposed to doing a crash plan in one week.
TIME What's the next big thing?
HOLLIDAY Sorona is a new brand of fabric we're making from corn sugar that takes dyes well, has great stretch recovery and makes a stain-resistant carpet fiber. To me, it's the most significant biopolymer in the world today. It has just the right set of properties and a cost advantage.
TIME You helped write the recent National Academy of Sciences report on the U.S.'s declining scientific competitiveness. How does that trend affect DuPont?