In Conversation with SC Johnson’s Kelly M. Semrau

SC Johnson, the global manufacturer of household cleaning supplies, is carrying out a five year study into consumer choices - chief sustainability officer Kelly M. Semrau tells edie why encouraging sustainable decisions is imperative to how businesses work in the future.

What area will you be focusing on next in terms of sustainability?

From energy to waste, to how we make our products and what goes into them, SC Johnson looks at sustainability across the whole business. One area that I truly believe is a big challenge for a consumer packaged goods company like us is consumer behaviour. We know that consumers want to make green choices, but that they don’t always do so. So we want to learn what it would take to change that, and how we, as a company, can do our part to make it easier for them, by bringing them green choices. One way we’re learning is through the commission of a five-year research initiative called the ‘SC Johnson Sustainable Behavior Change Program’. With partners from Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota, we’re working to learn more about how to inspire consumer behavior change around sustainable choices.

What are the major changes you see happening in your industry?

Environmental responsibility is no longer being seen as a separate business function. Instead, it is becoming a shared objective held by senior leaders throughout the industry, with specific targets being set as part of wider accountability.

What are the challenges for someone in your position?

At times it can feel frustrating knowing that, despite making incredible progress in some areas, there’s so much more that needs to be done. Change is rapid, and that’s both a challenge and an opportunity. Any commitment has to be matched by continuous improvement and at SC Johnson we know that we’ve got to continue to set goals, to achieve them, and then set new ones so we can drive continuous progress.

What motivates you?

Simple – my family. Growing up on a farm in Illinois with four brothers and sisters, my appreciation of sustainability issues started when I was just a child. Looking back, I think my ‘sustainable awareness’ was embedded in me during those early days. Today, our family farm is still managed by my brother, and I’m inspired by the changes he’s made, like converting the hog operation to organic. We all need to do better, and evolve, to create a path for a more sustainable future for the next generation. With two young daughters now, I feel strongly about the next generation and I’m concerned about the future we’re leaving them.

What’s the most exciting part of your job?

It’s inspiring to work at a company with such an amazing legacy of sustainability. At SC Johnson we’ve been making environmental choices for decades; whether it was removing CFCs from aerosol products in the 1970’s, years before the U.S. mandate, or in 2004 implementing a successful cogeneration operation at our largest global manufacturing facility, Waxdale. But we can’t let the legacy down, and we can’t rest on our laurels. We must continue to raise the bar. In 2012, we installed two wind turbines at the Waxdale facility, allowing us to move the facility to an average of 100% on-site production of electricity, with approximately 60% coming from renewable sources. We’re now off the grid at that facility and we’re continuing to look for more ways to raise the bar, across the globe.

What green innovation do you think can revolutionise the economy?

With energy costs continuing to rise, businesses are going to have to look for ways to better manage their energy consumption and minimize dependence on fossil fuels. Innovation in clean and renewable energy has the potential to revolutionize the global economy. With corresponding energy cost savings, these types of renewable energy are no longer just must-haves but they’re also a smart way to do business. As a global company, we believe we have a responsibility to help advance innovation in this space. But we’ve got another role to play, too. We’ve got to do our part to help advance consumer behaviour change. It’s going to take all stakeholders – from businesses, to government, to society as a whole, to take action if we’re going to make real progress.

What tips or advice would you give to newly appointed sustainability professionals?

Become an expert and never stop learning. Sustainability is a dynamic field so you need to dedicate yourself to continued education. Don’t accept the way things have been done forever; in the sustainability space, the only constant is change. If you are curious, have an open mind and commit to innovation; in doing so you will help drive positive change. I remember working on an aerosol recycling project nearly 20 years ago and today we’re making products with compressed air and talking about concentrates that reduce packaging.

What do you like most about your job?

Again, the only constant in sustainability is change and this is what I find most exciting. It’s invigorating to be a part of a team that pushes the boundaries and is always looking for better ways to do things. We know our work will never be done, and every day we give it our all to keep raising the bar.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?

I’m energized by our work on the recent Regeneration Project, which focused on developing a “roadmap” for achieving sustainable development. The project recently produced it’s “roadmap” in a report called Changing Tack which argues that the private sector has both the capability and reason to accelerate corporate leadership in the field of sustainable development. I hope this research will encourage more companies to learn from the experiences shared, and to take a leadership role in the implementation of sustainable business practices.

If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?

I would love to meet Amelia Earhart. As the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, she was a role model for women across the world, showing that it’s possible for us to fulfil our dreams and to smash through any obstacles that stand in our way.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

In 1998, Sam Johnson created a documentary about his relationship with his father and towards the end of the film he said “We should not worry about whether we have lived up to the expectations of our fathers, but whether we, as fathers, have lived up to the expectations of our children.” This comment really resonated with me because as a mother, it reminded me that I have a duty to advocate changes that will ensure my children have a beautiful environment to live in when they’re my age. The world needs sustainability leaders that live up to the expectations of future generations, and there are only a few other companies that take this commitment as seriously as SC Johnson. I’m fortunate that I get to work at a company under a leadership that places an enduring focus on sustainability and advancing environmental practices.

What’s your top tip for employee engagement?

Small things add up in a big company, so don’t underestimate the creativity and ingenuity of your co-workers. Take SC Johnson’s Waxdale facility cogeneration initiative, which was identified and pursued by one of our employees and subsequently received full support from management. As a result, our largest factory in the world now uses methane from a local landfill and natural gas to produce its own electricity and steam, cutting up to 47,250 metric tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year.

What state do you see the planet in in 30 years?

Many scientists believe that human activity already exceeds the earth’s capacity. The planet is approaching 9 billion people, and population growth doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Just last month, the UN revised its forecast of the world population, predicting 10.9 billion people on the planet by 2100. I believe we’re at a tipping point, and with impending growth, it’s essential that we look at consumption. Because it’s not simply the size of the population that’s worrisome but the levels at which we are producing and consuming. If we sustain the consumption levels we’re at today, our resources – not just oil and coal, but natural gas, water, phosphorous needed in fertilizers to maintain agriculture, will surely be in jeopardy if not completely depleted. Most estimates show we have about 50 years left of these three items. Therefore we need to change our consumption patterns as soon as possible and this can only be achieved by gaining a better understanding of how to positively influence consumer behaviour.

What do you say to the climate change sceptics?

There’s no disputing the fact that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are far above what are expected naturally, and that CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for potentially thousands of years. It’s time to stop arguing and agree on a few things. For example, with better options in innovative renewable energy being more readily available, and with better ROI, moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy makes sense for both the environment and bottom line.

What’s been your biggest win (environmentally)?

Renewable energy innovations around the world have helped us to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions by 42% (as indexed to production), compared to our 2000 baseline. Today, nearly 30 percent of our global energy use comes from renewable energy, with wind energy, solar power, cogeneration continuing to play an ever increasing role in powering our global operations with clean energy.

If there was one word you could remove from the English language what would it be?

‘Green’ – I struggle with its varied interpretation, as everyone seems to come up with their own meaning when it’s applied to sustainability and innovation.

Books or kindle?

I’m a voracious reader and belong to several book clubs. When it comes to how I like to read; I’m a jack of all trades. In my family, we’ve got a multitude of devices – an iPad, Kindles and a Nook, and I prefer eBooks for their convenience when I’m on the road. But every once in a while, I also like to settle down with a good old fashioned hard cover novel.

For more interviews with leading sustainability professionals check out edie’s ‘In conversation’ series here

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