At the turn of the century, the efforts of Progressive-era reformers brought new attention to factory working conditions and the risks of handling industrial chemicals. In 1904 DuPont hired physician Walter G. Hudson to investigate the toxicity of nitric acid fumes, and through the 1920s, he monitored the toxicity of a large number of chemical compounds.
Still, DuPont’s small medical staff could not keep pace with the bewildering array of chemicals developed every year. A series of fatalities linked to benzene, tetraethyl lead (TEL) and dye manufacturing led DuPont to establish a central laboratory where all chemical products could be systematically tested for harmful effects on workers, consumers and the environment. The Haskell Laboratory of Industrial Toxicology opened in 1935 and set an important standard for safety in chemical manufacturing.
Three years later DuPont’s Executive Committee took a major step forward in protecting the environment when it adopted a resolution recognizing the importance of pollution abatement in chemical production. DuPont hired an expert in trade waste—a field still in its infancy—to coordinate the company’s pollution abatement program. But before these initiatives could be fully implemented, World War II intervened. DuPont, like other industries that had adopted measures designed to minimize waste, was generally more concerned with the conservation of precious resources than with environmental pollution. But the war marked a watershed of sorts. In its aftermath, DuPont formed an Air and Water Resources Committee composed of representatives from each of the company’s manufacturing departments and six staff departments. This group was charged with coordinating the interchange of information on all aspects of environmental protection. The company also adopted statements on its waste recovery practice stipulating that the development of a new process or the construction of a new facility would not be complete until it included satisfactory methods for waste disposal or treatment.
During the 1950s, DuPont further diversified its product line, particularly in the fields of textile fibers and insecticides. At the same time, economic prosperity and a postwar baby boom fueled a booming consumer market. But as America became more affluent, its citizens began to view clean air and water as yet another desirable commodity and environmentalism in the modern sense began to take shape. The movement coalesced in 1962 with the publication of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson’s alarming account of the devastation caused by certain chemical pesticides.
In the aftermath of “Silent Spring” the public image of chemical manufacturing was transformed. Rather than providing “better things for better living,” chemical producers were now seen as depleting natural resources and undermining quality of life. The federal government responded with the Water Quality Act of 1965 and the Air Quality Act of 1967. Chemical producers criticized these laws for the crippling costs that they incurred, but DuPont did acknowledge the need for environmental regulation. In 1966 the company established an Environmental Quality Committee to ensure compliance with the proliferation of new laws and the political, legal ways to tackle the economic problems associated with them. The company also invested heavily in pollution abatement. Between 1966 and 1970, DuPont spent $207 million on devices including smokestack scrubbers and equipment to monitor and control waste streams. On another front, the company stepped up research into safe product alternatives like Lannate, an insecticide that is rapidly metabolized by plants and easily broken down in soil.
In the early 1970s, DuPont committed itself to exceeding the minimum legal requirements for environmental protection. When the earliest scientific findings regarding the role of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in ozone depletion were published in the mid-1970s, CEO Irving S. Shapiro pledged that DuPont would cease manufacturing CFCs if credible scientific evidence of harm to the environment was obtained. This was a bold move since CFC sales amounted to $700 million per year.
When Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, most chemical companies argued that further regulation would only undermine their competitive position in world markets. DuPont adopted a more positive approach, expressing a willingness to work with the government and environmentalists. President Jimmy Carter later publicly recognized DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro for having successfully lobbied for Congressional approval of Superfund legislation which required chemical producers to pay 88 percent of the $1.6 billion estimated cost for cleaning up toxic waste dumps.
During the 1980s and 1990s, DuPont developed a host of programs designed to reduce air emissions, curtail the generation of hazardous waste, and decrease wastewater discharges. In 1984 the company helped create Clean Sites, Inc., a private sector initiative intended to complement Environmental Protection Agency efforts to clean up abandoned dump sites. Three years later, DuPont received the Gold Medal for International Corporate Environmental Achievement from the World Environmental Center for Industry. Building on its experience in industrial plastics recycling, the company formed a joint venture with Waste Management, Inc., in 1989 to recycle post-consumer plastics. Finally, six years later, in keeping with Shapiro’s pledge, DuPont plants in the developed world produced their last CFCs and were on their way to phasing out all production by the end of the 20th century.
DuPont began the next century with a goal of zero waste and emissions production, placing it in a position unique among chemical manufacturers. Conventional wisdom argues that environmental investment reduces profits and competitiveness, but DuPont has demonstrated that waste reduction can improve corporate performance. DuPont has reduced waste while cutting costs by incorporating recycled carpet fiber into Minlon reinforced nylon and shipping neoprene synthetic rubber in bags that dissolve during the production process. Perhaps most importantly, products such as Suva non-ozone depleting refrigerants allow consumers to safeguard the environment by using DuPont products. As DuPont pursues sustainable growth, its growing emphasis on renewable resources helps ensure that the products that improve quality of life need not harm the planet.
David A. Hounshell, and John Kenley Smith, Jr., Science and Corporate Strategy: Du Pont R&D, 1902-1980 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
“Environmental Stewardship,” Chemical & Engineering News, May 29, 1989, 12-15.
Allison Lucas, “DuPont: Fighting Its Way to a Cleaner Standard,” Chemical Week, June 1, 1994, 41-42.