By Lauryn Power, G&A Institute Analyst-Intern
The chemical sector faces the third-highest number of environmental and social risks of all sectors, based on a 2020 analysis published by S&P Global. In the U.S., the chemical sector generates around $758 billion annually, contributing 25% of the U.S. GDP and providing many raw materials for industries including agriculture, consumer goods, and pharmaceuticals.
Major Sustainability Challenges:
According to a report from Ecovadis partner DFGE, the chemical sector faces a large number of sustainability challenges including scrutiny over impacts on water quality and discharge of effluents. It can be very costly to remove impurities from wastewater.
Chemical production is often energy intensive and leads to significant GHG emissions. There are many chemical processes which require high temperatures often generated by fossil fuels.
There is major concern over worker and consumer health and safety in producing and using the products. There are chemicals which are still being used despite being hazardous. These chemicals are often supplied to other industries and can be polluted into water streams, causing health problems for workers, local residents, and ecosystems. The products themselves can remain in the environment for centuries, possibly forever.
In 1985, the International Council of Chemical Associations (ICAA) created the Responsible Care program. This initiative’s main goals are to promote safe chemical management, promote environmental health and safety, and contribute to sustainable development. By 2021, 580 chemical companies (96% of the industry) had committed to the program globally. Many of the Council’s sustainability recommendations align with chemical companies’ plans. They are often focused on prevention rather than mitigation. They have extensive plans for spills, contaminations, and waste disposal which are all regulated in the United States. These plans also include details for worker health and safety, which require hours of training before workers can perform hazardous work.
Many chemical companies are working towards improving the composition of plastics so they are more readily recyclable, as well as developing more accessible methods of recycling to more efficiently recycle the plastics that already exist. They are pushing to use renewable energy in as many operations as possible and to continue innovating in that sector. Additionally, they are focusing on creating strong plans for wastewater disposal, whether it is disposed carefully or if it is treated to be reused.
All chemical manufacturers in the U.S. are required to report certain practices and metrics to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including the types of chemicals they are producing.
In terms of voluntary ESG reporting, there are many different frameworks chemical companies can use to build their reports.
SASB provides sector-specific recommendations for disclosures on ESG metrics for chemical companies. These disclosures are what SASB considers to be financially material topics to the industry. They require disclosure of global Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions and a discussion on plans to manage emissions both short-term and long-term. Air quality emissions of key hazardous air pollutants should be disclosed. Energy, water, and hazardous waste management require the specification of the amount used/generated. The water disclosure requires a further discussion of the company’s strategy to reduce potential damages from wastewater.
GRI is the most common sustainability reporting framework. While it does not currently provide specific chemical sector disclosures, it is planning on expanding the list of sector specific disclosures to include chemicals in the next few years. Still, many of the general disclosures are applicable to chemical companies and touch on some of their most critical issues. Chemical companies should first perform the GRI’s materiality assessment to help them determine which disclosures are most impactful to their business.
Some general disclosures chemical companies may report on are: GRI 303: Water and Effluents requiring companies to state the amount of water withdrawn, by source and the amount discharged; and GRI 403: Occupational Health and Safety requiring companies to state the type of required trainings for workers to do certain hazardous work, the number of work-related injuries, a description of the company’s strategy for managing worker health and safety, and other key information/metrics on this topic.
Other potentially important disclosures include: GRI 306: Waste which covers hazardous waste disposal methods; and GRI 307: Environmental Compliance which would involve chemical companies required disclosures by the EPA and other actions taken to keep operations within legal standards. Note: The updated 2021 GRI Standards, officially in effect in 2023, include environmental compliance as a general disclosure, meaning reporting on this topic will be required for accordance with the Standards.
While TCFD does not provide chemical-specific disclosures, the general disclosures about climate-related risks and opportunities are applicable to chemical companies. The TCFD framework as a whole approaches sustainability from a risk perspective, which helps chemical companies directly state the most critical components of their businesses and their action plans to mitigate that risk.
In 2019, TCFD held a forum with five major chemicals companies to discuss how to improve sustainability reporting in the chemical sector. One finding was that disclosures should include more specific metrics to measure sustainable development and that companies need a stronger approach to governance with sustainability in mind. For example, given that TCFD is focused on financial risk disclosures, the forum suggested adding metrics such as revenues from low-carbon products and low-carbon solution R&D expenditures. For strategy disclosures, the forum recommended having more scenario analysis to better understand the impact of different climate-change strategies.
Chemical companies can play a major role in contributing to the success of the UN SDGs. The goals that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has identified as most critical for the chemicals sector are shown here.
How can the sector impact these goals? For Goal 2 – Zero Hunger, the chemical sector can make a huge impact on sustainable food development by producing more efficient fertilizers to boost crop yields. For Goal 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, the sector can develop important materials used for solar panels, wind turbines, and carbon capture technology. More information on how the sector can support the SDGs can be found here.
Lauryn Power is a G&A Institute Analyst-Intern, currently pursuing a MS in Sustainability in the Urban and Environmental Planning department at Tufts University. She has a BS in Chemistry from the University of Virginia where she also earned a minor in Mathematics. She also received a certificate in Business Fundamentals at the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.
She has worked in various chemistry research labs and has a scientific background on climate change. She also has experience in sustainable fashion. She interned for the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce doing research on current issues with fast fashion globally.
Through her educational background and experiences in the industry, she hopes to work in the intersection of sustainability and business, helping corporations to improve their practices and find ways to make their business more sustainable.