Note: this is the first in a periodic series of posts containing items from earlier drafts of Good Company that did not make it into the final published version, largely because of space constraints. We hope you enjoy our “cutting room floor” excerpts…
Dave Buzzelli thought being green in the 1980s would destroy his career at chemical giant Dow. Instead, it ultimately led to an invitation from the White House—encapsulating the way sustainability has gradually become mainstream if not a formula for success for business leaders.
Buzzelli was a young executive in charge of agricultural chemicals at Dow in 1983 when a controversy erupted about the toxic substance dioxin. Dioxin was a byproduct of Dow operations, and Buzzelli led the firm’s public affairs on the issue. As someone who “grew up in the outdoors” hunting and fishing in Minnesota, Buzzelli eventually began to see the perspective of the environmentalists criticizing Dow and other industrial firms.
But it was rare in the 1970s and early 1980s for business leaders to talk directly with activists let alone concede some of their points. Hence Buzzelli’s fear when Dow public relations official Sue Dupree wrote a story about him for an internal publication in 1984. Dupree planned to title the piece “Dow’s Environmentalist.”
“I said, ‘Sue, you’re going to kill my career,’” Buzzelli recalls.
But the piece ran, title intact. And Buzzelli continued to rise up the corporate ladder.
He became CEO of Dow Canada in the late 1980s, where he was part of a government panel about economic and ecological issues. It included industry leaders, environmental activists and public officials. “Nothing like that had ever been done in the U.S.,” Buzzelli recalls. “The Canadians had this different philosophy of trying to get all the stakeholders in the room at the same time.”
Buzzelli’s ability to see both the business and environmental sides brought Al Gore to his door. While serving as Vice President, Gore recruited Buzzelli to help lead President Bill Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development. The group was co-chaired by Buzzelli and the president of the World Resources Institute, Jonathan Lash, and included leaders from other non-governmental organizations–such as The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club—as well as other corporate heavy hitters–such as Chevron, Georgia Pacific and General Motors. Members of President Clinton’s cabinet, such as Department of the Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, also served on the council.
Buzzelli says the group was an early example of greater dialog between business leaders and other stakeholders about environmental concerns. For years now, he points out, Dow and other companies have held regular meetings with academics and non-governmental organizations about the effects of products and operations on the planet.
By now, it is absolutely acceptable—if not fashionable–for executives to proclaim their greenness. But Buzzelli says business leaders have to be vigilant about preserving a stakeholder perspective rather than a narrow focus on the bottom line. In other words, he warns against a return to the closed-minded mindset he feared a few decades ago. “Business people need to be exposed constantly to people who don’t share their views,” he says.