In Conversation with Dow: The Unexpected and Unconventional Partnerships That Launch Circular Solutions


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Dow’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Julie Zaniewski, kicks off this series of conversations by sharing insights into how the chemical giant is shaking up business as usual to come up with solutions.

Sustainability is truly, and finally, having its moment – ​​from unprecedented corporate decarbonization commitments to increased consumer demand for sustainable products.

Yet how to sustain, sustain and scale this work remains a mystery to many organizations. With the climate clock counting down, it’s going to take an extraordinary alignment of people, actors, and big business toward common goals to chart a viable course.

Partnerships are essential; and strategic engagements with peers, competitors, and non-traditional players provide organizations with endless opportunities to reach beyond their normal scope of work and capabilities. In recognition of this vital dynamic, this article is the first in a series of spotlights on atypical collaborations and proof-of-concepts that are changing the world.

In this interview, Dow Sustainable Development Director Julie Zaniewski launches this series of conversations to find out how the chemical giant is shaking up business as usual to deliver solutions.

Dow has just celebrated its 125th anniversary, a rare and major milestone for a company. How do you and your colleagues stay fresh and continue to rethink historical and linear approaches and move a giant organization towards circularity?

JZ: Many people wonder, “How do you drive change in an organization without having to push?” Instead, I think you should focus on creating attraction.

It’s one of the reasons I left my 20-year career in consumer packaging development and joined Dow. As an individual, I have the ability to effect change with small actions. As a team member of a large organization, these small actions can be multiplied and create a much bigger overall impact. And Dow’s positioning in the value chain means it’s an important supplier to a significant part of the economy; and it’s a great platform for fresh, creative innovation – one of Dow’s core values.

When you’re trying to solve a waste problem, it’s much more effective and impactful to be able to do it from within, isn’t it? And this is where having change agents within the organization helps you create the most impact. You can do it on the perimeter and create that push from the outside in, but when you find transition-ready organizations that seem determined to develop solutions, being part of that organization can do a lot more difference.

What are the biggest circularity gaps right now? Where are the opportunities?

JZ: Industry giants who want to remain risk averse are part of the persistent gap in the transition to circularity. We need these big companies to make impactful changes and lasting changes to close this gap and create a self-sustaining system. Often stand-alone models involve more than one entity; so you’re trying to convince organization A to spend more in one area so that organization B can do this and organization C can do that.

There is some movement in terms of having a collective agreement, but it’s usually on a small scale — we need this large scale agreement to see real transformation.

If we are looking to create economies of scale, are there partnerships that can help?

JZ: At Dow, our approach to partnerships is evolving as we become more innovative and inclusive in terms of the people around the table. Ten years ago, if we had had this conversation, I never would have thought to consider many of the partnerships we see in this space today. For example, a pre-competitive coalition for recycling including brands, retailers, material manufacturers, recyclers and investment funds would have been a most unconventional idea ten years ago. This is now becoming the norm.

The unconventional partners we bring to the table are imperative because they ensure diversity of ideas and essential skills. It is recognized that you don’t have to stay in your lane to solve problems and create opportunities for your organization.

However, as we have seen over the past two years – where specific societal needs were evident and came into play – an ingenuity has developed within organisations, enabling them to identify and find solutions not obvious.

Take ventilators, for example: entire automotive manufacturing systems have been converted to meet the demand caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This “outside the box” approach breeds opportunity – beyond addressing an immediate need, this innovative thought process can help bring different ideas and approaches to scale.

What are currently the best examples of partnership and the best opportunities for circularity?

JZ: Closed loop partners with their various investment funds present a great example of partnerships across the value chain by identifying gaps and creating self-sustaining systemic solutions. Different investment vehicles can be used for public and private entities to access catalytic capital. What they have also been able to do – and this is one of the reasons why we consider them a great partner – is quickly and effectively identify these needs in different spaces, providing a go-to-market approach rapid recycling solutions.

Closed Loop has been particularly successful in bringing together industry competitors. In May 2021, Dow and two other leading plastics and materials science companies — LyondellBasell and NOVA Chemicals – established on Funds for closed-loop circular plastics invest in scalable recycling technologies, equipment upgrades and infrastructure solutions.

The recycling partnership is also a great example of driving and scaling pre-competitive solutions. They pilot community aspects in the field, from which the companies are sometimes quite far away. They help answer questions such as:* “How does Jane Doe take her used soft bags and dispose of them? What challenges does she face in recycling these bags? Does she want to recycle? What drives it?”* The partnership provides insight into creating solutions and provides Dow with the opportunity to step in and help drive change at scale.

Encouraging people to prioritize sustainability can sometimes seem like an uphill battle. How do you stay encouraged and, in turn, push others towards lasting solutions?

JZ: It comes down to how can I, as an individual, do something good and feel like I’m doing something meaningful? And it could be as simple as that.

I was concerned to some degree that people would lose sight of the importance of sustainability because there have been so many other areas of concern over the past few years. But then I go to my neighborhood social media page and see people still commenting on the basics: that they don’t have enough recycling or collection bins from their municipality. I’ve realized that it’s almost like people are coming back to this as something that makes them feel normal – and things like individual action for sustainability bring back a sense of community.

People are recognizing existing sustainability issues and the need for better infrastructure, and they are also asking for and identifying meaningful solutions. By creating change in your community, you are part of the collective tackling larger societal issues. Resolving these changes makes them – all of us really – feel the normalcy that our daily lives have been missing.

So, let’s start there: get the basics right — so that, overall, we can move toward evolutionary change. There is no turning back – only moving forward.