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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : May/June 2002 : A Concrete Initiative


A Concrete Initiative
A wide range of issues are related to the “glue” that holds together much of modern society’s infrastructure.

By Dr. Barbara Dubach

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is a coalition of 160 international companies united by a shared commitment to sustainable development via the three pillars of economic growth, ecological balance and social progress. Members are drawn from more than 30 countries and 20 major industrial sectors. It also benefits from a global network of 38 national and regional business councils and partner organizations involving some 1,000 business leaders globally.

The Framework

Sustainable development presents numerous challenges, many of which are too difficult for a single company to understand and tackle on its own. To confront key global sustainable development issues facing one industry, the WBCSD initiated six sector projects, which include:

  • Cement
  • Forestry
  • Mobility
  • Mining and Minerals
  • Electricity Utilities
  • Financial Sector

Sector projects are a unique feature of the work of the WBCSD providing a platform for different actors to cooperate toward common goals. WBCSD member companies lead these industry sector projects through multi-source funding and extensive use of stakeholder dialogue. The analytical work is often contracted to independent organizations. They also appoint assurance groups, which are composed of experts from academia, business, non-governmental and international organizations, to safeguard the independence of the research and offer balanced views.

Why Cement?

Concrete is the second most consumed substance on earth, after water. It accounts for nearly one ton of the material used annually for each person on the planet. Cement is the critical ingredient in concrete, locking together the sand and gravel constituents in an inert matrix. It is the “glue” that holds together much of modern society’s infrastructure.

The cement industry generates a wide range of sustainability issues. Dust and noise from cement plants and quarries are specific local issues. More broadly, the fuels and raw materials used in the manufacturing process have generated controversy, and energy-intensive manufacturing processes result in a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

To help the cement industry play a full role in a more sustainable future, and to provide the industry with tools to make this happen, 10 major cement companies from around the globe undertook a sector research initiative in 1999 under the auspices of the WBCSD.

Adding Concrete to the Research

Battelle Memorial Institute (a U.S.-based not-for-profit research organization) was retained to complete a series of detailed research studies, integrate the results and produce recommendations. The independent research organizations, coupled with an external assurance process, ensured an unbiased view of the industry and its progress toward sustainability.

The assurance group, chaired by Mostafa Tolba, former director general of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reviewed the research plan and the work as it has progressed to make certain that it fairly represents the many viewpoints that need to be included.

“Our work on the Sustainable Cement project has convinced me of the value of focused projects in converting sustainable development principles into an actionable agenda with companies committed to making real progress,” says Tolba.

The final Battelle report, “Toward a Sustainable Cement Industry,” along with different sub-studies, was released in May 2002. Initial conclusions point to eight issues (see box on this page) that are critical for the cement industry to address in any sustainable development plan and action program.

“Because it is both global and local, the cement industry faces a unique set of issues, which attract attention from communities near the plant and at an international level,” says Howard Klee, manager of the Sustainable Cement project. “They are complex issues ranging from local dust, noise and employment concerns to the potential impact of cement manufacturing on climate change.”

Stakeholder Dialogues

While some structural and market changes are driving the industry toward sustainable development, others are inhibiting progress. Barriers include a lack of trust among stakeholders and the industry’s negative image in the media. The industry has a low public profile, although some issues have generated a great deal of emotional debate, such as those related to managing wastes, alternative fuels and raw materials used in manufacture.

Understanding and addressing stakeholder concerns has been critical in an industry that has little tradition of consulting non-business stakeholders. This willingness to broadly engage non-business groups was a first for the cement industry. During the early stages, four regional stakeholder dialogues were held in Brazil, Thailand, Portugal and Egypt to listen to and learn from local stakeholders. Their views and concerns were used to refine subsequent work.

In late stages, facilitated dialogues were held with policymakers and NGO groups in Washington, DC, and Brussels to understand their expectations for the industry in dealing with the issues raised by the study. A final dialogue, held in Beijing, discussed possible implementation approaches in a rapidly developing economy, and one that is responsible for one-third of the world’s cement market.

Specific partnerships have also been built with various bodies on particular aspects of the project. For instance, guidelines for environmental and social impact analysis are being developed in cooperation with the World Bank and environmental NGOs. WWF International participated as a sponsor in reviewing research on climate impacts of the industry.

Next Steps

Already the project has produced two important results: A guide for cement plant managers on managing and improving local stakeholder communications, and a standard protocol for measuring and reporting CO2 emissions, which is now endorsed by the UNFCCC and the World Resources Institute, among others. A code of good practice for managing waste materials in cement kilns is expecting development during 2002.

The 10 members of the working group are now developing their response to the Battelle report, in the form of an “Agenda for Action,” to be released in July 2002. The agenda will set out joint and individual commitments, actions and measurements to deal with specific recommendations.

In the longer term, the project will build on the “Agenda for Action,” which represents a plan for the first five years. A process of engagement and cooperative work with an increasing number of the industry’s stakeholders will begin later this year. Companies should see reductions in operating costs as well as strategic advantages such as an enhanced “license to operate.”

Dr. Barbara Dubach has a Ph.D. in managing environmental communication in multinational companies from the University of St. Gallen. In 1997, she began her career with Holcim (former Holderbank), Switzerland, where she has held a number of marketing and communications positions. Since April 1, 2001 Dubach has been on secondment from Holcim to the WBCSD, where she is in charge of communications and advocacy. For more information, visit

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