DuPont – A Case Study in Sustainability

20 February 2014

This essay is the second in a continuing series of Case Studies in Sustainability. The purpose of these case studies is to acquaint smaller manufacturing firms with actions other firms are taking right now toward a sustainable future for themselves and, not incidentally, the rest of us as well. 

The DuPont Company

Former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach writes “… being a sustainable business means thriving in perpetuity.[1] The E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company — DuPont — has been a successful American manufacturing business for over 200 years. In manufacturing, 200 years is a pretty good down-payment on perpetuity. However, DuPont’s corporate past, interesting as it is, is less relevant than what DuPont is doing today to meet today’s challenges and to position the business for tomorrow’s.

Still, it is the past that brought DuPont (and everybody else) to the actionable present. So, a quick look at history provides useful context for understanding what DuPont is doing, and why.

One Century at a Time

Rita McGrath, a professor Columbia University’s business school, teaches that there is no such thing as a sustainable competitive advantage,[2] hence no sustainable business model. Times change and perpetuity just lasts too long. For DuPont, it appears that a century is about as long as their business models last.

Unrestored Powder MillDuPont began as an explosives manufacturer, with black powder mills on the Brandywine River in northern Delaware. DuPont was quite successful supplying explosives to a rapidly growing America through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. DuPont was so successful, in fact, that Teddy Roosevelt’s Trust Busters forced DuPont to spin off two of the three product groups that comprised DuPont’s explosives business in 1912. Happily for DuPont and its shareholders, DuPont retained the military explosives product group, provided about 40% of the explosives used by the Allied side in World War I, and earned a bundle of money doing so.[3]

As the War to End All War ended, DuPont recognized that times had changed. DuPont morphed from an explosives business into a research – based company that promised — and delivered — “Better things for better living, through chemistry”. DuPont became a large, diversified chemicals manufacturer with special emphasis on polymers for textile fibers. Children of the 20th century are familiar with Nylon, Orlon and Dacron fabrics, along with DuPont paint and Zerex antifreeze. During the post World War II boom, DuPont became a role model for the Industrial Age. Everybody remembers company towns. In Delaware, “Uncle Dupie’s” benevolent presence almost amounted to a “company state”.

In the later decades of the 20th century, the Industrial Age began to tatter. The Arab oil embargo in the 1970’s demonstrated DuPont’s reliance on petroleum for feed stocks for their chemical plants, to the extent that DuPont bought CONOCO to assure their supply.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring elevated environmental and toxicity concerns in the public awareness — and DuPont’s broad range of chemical operations provided plenty of compliance challenges. The rise of Globalism led to the migration of America’s textile and apparel industries to countries with lower labor cost, resulting in a decline in DuPont’s textile fibers businesses.

DuPont responded by embracing Sustainable Development as well as Globalism. In the 1990’s, DuPont’s CEO was an early Chairman of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. Environmental issues were addressed vigorously, in U.S. facilities and in DuPont facilities abroad.

Another Century, Another DuPont

In the first years of the 21st century, it became increasingly clear to DuPont that the Industrial Age had passed and that new realities required new thinking. DuPont concluded that Sustainability needs go further than recycling and reducing emissions — well beyond making 20th century operations less bad.[4]

DuPont’s new Statement of Purpose summarizes the company’s direction:

Notice that chemistry has broadened to science; that the approach is collaborative (with a broad range of stakeholders); that the scope is global; and that humanity’s biggest challenges provide the inspiration for the products the company intends to offer. For the present, efforts will focus on three strategic priorities: food and nutrition, bio-based industrial feed stocks and advanced materials. To make all of this happen, DuPont will continue to rely on R&D. The company boasts 150 R&D facilities, distributed globally, employing over 10,000 scientists and engineers. It will be interesting to watch what happens.

Chuck - BrittanyThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington

: Contact me when your organization is serious about pursuing Sustainability … CH

This blog and associated website ( are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published on Wednesday evenings.

[1] Adam Werbach, Strategy for Sustainability, Harvard Business Press (2009), pg. 9


[2] Rita McGrath, The End of Competitive Advantage, Harvard Business Review Press (2013)


[3] Erik Sass does a nice overview on DuPont and the Powder Trust at:


[4] Information in this section is drawn from DuPont’s 2013 Sustainability Progress Report. That report can be accessed as a slides presentation at:, or in .pdf form at: