Dawn Rittenhouse: Director of Sustainable Growth

Sustainability & Corporate Strategy

On March 8th, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) announced the first 10 recipients of the inaugural Leading Women Awards, developed to recognize outstanding female leaders within the WBCSD membership. The awards, which were announced on International Women’s Day, showcase the business leadership of women in WBCSD member companies who are working to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Dawn Rittenhouse, director of Global Sustainability, was among the inaugural honorees.

For two decades, Dawn has been the engine driving the integration of sustainability into the strategy, product innovation, management practices, and policies of DuPont. Under her leadership, DuPont became one of the first U.S. companies to sign the U.N. Global Compact, was the first U.S. company to appoint a Chief Sustainability Officer, has set and achieved consistently more progressive sustainability goals, and has been a consistent, vocal proponent for global action on climate change. Her reflections on the evolution of corporate sustainability, its challenges and opportunities, and the future of the SDGs are below.

I started working on sustainability at DuPont in 1997. At the time, our focus was reducing the footprint of DuPont operations. When I attended meetings, like the World Summit on Sustainability Development in 2002, the conversations often cast corporations as the problem. Governments and NGOs didn’t welcome business to the table. Now, those same entities understand that companies are an essential partner that can deliver the innovative solutions needed to help solve our sustainability challenges. The problems are so challenging that no single entity can solve them alone; we need governments, business and civil society working collaboratively to achieve the most impact. It has been great to watch the mindset evolution and start seeing some of these powerful collaborations working to find solutions to challenges like the SDGs.

That’s not to say significant challenges don’t still exist. For large companies that have been around for a while, invested capital is a major challenge. Once an investment is made, it can be difficult if not impossible to change course. It makes sense when approached from a personal level. Take your car as an example. Every day you can try to drive fewer miles, carpool, or use public transportation but you only get the opportunity to make the big decision on what car to purchase occasionally. Corporations have the same challenge — once we have invested in a new facility, it may have a lifetime of 30 to 40 years and it is very difficult to make major changes. It’s is a similar concept in product development — if you don’t consider sustainability early in the process, decisions are made that limit the ability to really make a difference in the sustainability impact of the product.

Another major challenge is that when we bring new, more sustainable products to the market they are often more expensive than the incumbents because we have not had the time to scale up and become more efficient. One example of this is bio-based materials, which can have a hard time competing against fossil-based materials.

Despite these challenges, I believe that as a society we really want to solve the major challenges such as assuring there is enough healthy and nutritious food for everybody, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and protecting people and the environment. For an innovation-focused company like DuPont, there are so many opportunities to develop new products and services that help solve those challenges in a way that both creates value both for society and our shareholders. 

These opportunities are what makes me optimistic. I think that people who work in the sustainability area are by nature optimistic. The challenges are huge and on lots of days it can feel like we aren’t making any progress. But if you look back a few years, you can see the real progress that has been made. I believe that the next generation, the Millennials, who are now the largest generation in the workforce, will push their companies even harder to make a difference. Companies that understand sustainable value will differentiate themselves and attract and keep the best and the brightest young talent.

It also helps to have a common framework around which we can all rally. That’s why the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are so useful; they create a common language and framework for sustainability. The SDGs were only released in September 2015, but already companies are linking their strategies and voluntary commitments to the goals and metrics. In time, as governments start to drive policies to assure progress on the goals, business will partner with others to create new business opportunities.