THE BLOG

Clean Water and the Tao of Dow

08/01/2006 11:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dow Chemical announced last week that it would develop new technologies and solutions "for creating safer, more sustainable water supplies for communities around the world."

The announcement, part of Dow's 2015 Sustainability Goals, included a pledge to develop technologies focusing on desalination; chemistry and polymers for removing specific impurities; leak-reducing materials that increase the efficiency of community water systems; and lower-cost technologies and business models for managing municipal water supplies.

Sounds like yet another in a series of old-line polluters committing to a new, greener strategy in the footsteps of GE, Dupont, and BP, right?

Of course, it's never that simple.

Dow, it seems, has a longer row to hoe than most big companies to be seen authentically as a convert to sustainability. And while the three companies mentioned above -- and nearly all industrial companies, for that matter -- have environmental legacies to deal with, Dow's legacy may be tougher than most to overcome. The modern history of the 110-year-old company includes manufacturing the Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange, which made its way into the food chain and was linked to birth defects among Vietnamese people and U.S. soldiers. Dow also manufactured napalm, a mixture of petrol and a chemical thickner that produces a tough sticky gel that attaches itself to the skin. Its use by U.S. troops is associated with thousands of horrific deaths of Vietnamese.

The legacy also includes Dow's ownership of Union Carbide, which it purchased in 2001, making it heir to that company's toxic tragedy in Bhopal, India. A 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant there released 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate, leading to some 20,000 deaths and, according to some accounts, injuries to more than 100,000 others. (In 1989, Union Carbide paid a $470 million legal settlement to the government of India for the accident.)

Then there's Dow's production of a myriad of plastics, including vinyl chloride, which has been singled out as particularly toxic; and the pesticide Lorsban, which has been associated with death among wildlife that inhale its vapors. And, of course, the silicone breast implants that Dow Corning (co-owned by Dow) marketed in the 1970s, which caused health problems for some women after the devices began leaking. Dow ultimately paid more than $3 billion to cover claims associated with implants among 170,000 women.

Suffice to say, turning this legacy into a warm, fuzzy image is not for the faint of heart.

Not that Dow isn't trying. In addition to its water announcement, the $46 billion (2005 sales) company recently launched a new corporate image campaign called "The Human Element." Its goal, according to a Dow press release, is to "reintroduce the company and announce its vision of addressing some of the most pressing economic, social, and environmental concerns facing the global community in the coming decade."

"This is more than an ad campaign to our company. It is a statement to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business," said Patti Temple Rocks, Dow vice president of global communications and reputation. "It will be our calling card to people around the world who care about the future relationship between businesses, society, and the environment. It reflects our intention as a company to prioritize the things we do to advance innovation and focus the people and resources of Dow on solving human problems."

The company says the campaign will run in U.S. broadcast, print, and online media through the end of 2006, with plans to extend the campaign to key international markets in 2007. So far, the campaign has been relatively low-key, compared to, say, GE's Ecomagination rollout last year, or BP's "Beyond Petroleum" campaign. Indeed, Dow's name and logo flash only briefly at the end of its 30-second commercials.

Perhaps it's better that way. The ads seem largely ineffective, in that their core message (We love chemicals + we care about chemicals = we care about you, the human element) seems vague and noncommittal, the impressive cinematography notwithstanding. It's another in a long line of frustratingly nonspecific corporate image ads that I've railed against in the past. What specifically does Dow intend to do differently to address the "human element"? There's no clue. (View images from the campaign here.)

It's not that Dow hasn't gotten the green corporate bug. Like many companies, it is investing in clean technologies. In June, for example, it acquired Zhejiang Omex Engineering Co. of China because, Dow said, the smaller company specializes in water-purification systems. Also in June, Dow purchased $1.25 million in stock of Millennium Cell, a fuel cell manufacturer, part of a "three-year, milestone-driven joint development program to collaborate on the development and commercialization of portable fuel cell systems for use in consumer electronics and military applications," says Dow. The company also says it plans to look at plastics and other products to build modular homes for use in developing countries, according to news reports.

But these are, at best, timid steps toward sustainability for a behemoth chemical company, and unlikely to move the masses to view Dow in a kinder, gentler light. Unlike GE and Dupont, which have made the introduction of sustainability-minded products a core business-development strategy, and BP, for which alternative energy is a natural extension of its existing energy business, Dow's effort to paint a green self-portrait seems feeble -- an almost obligatory gesture in an era in which companies are expected to be more proactive about the fate of the earth and its denizens.

In the end, an unapologetic chemical company's low-key efforts to persuade the public that it wants to be a leader in clean water is bound to leave a bad taste in most people's mouth.