Listen to Victoria and Chris Jahn’s Conversation Here:

Chris Jahn, the President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council, is uncovering what propels the chemical industry forward amid global challenges. From regulatory challenges to sustainability initiatives and the characteristics that define impactful leadership, this episode of The Chemical Show spans several pressing topics that are top-of-mind for every business leader today.

Victoria Meyer talks with Chris at the ACC’s Responsible Care and Sustainability Conference where Chris elaborates on the importance of sustainability, regulatory challenges, and the significance of the ongoing UN Plastics Treaty negotiations. Victoria and Chris also discuss the role of AI and data analytics in enhancing operational efficiency and regulatory processes. 

Victoria also introduces key insights from the conference.

Join Victoria and Chris as they discuss the following:

  • Key insights from ACC’s Responsible Care® and Sustainability Conference
    • Unwavering commitment to a better world
    • Responsible Care® as a foundation for the industry
    • Commitment to collaboration
    • Importance of incremental improvements
    • Meeting customer needs
  • Four strategic pillars of ACC
  • Member collaboration and association leadership at ACC
  • Update on UN Plastics Treaty negotiations
  • Introducing ACC’s first Sustainability Report
  • Characteristics of great leadership

Access ACC’s Sustainability Report. 

Killer Quote: “It is not some entrepreneur with a crazy app that’s going to solve that problem. It’s engineers and scientists solving problems at scale. That’s what’s going to address climate change.”  – Chris Jahn

Watch Victoria and Chris Discuss Sustainability in The Chemical Industry on Youtube Here:

Sustainability Starts with Chemistry with ACC CEO Chris Jahn

Hi. This is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. This is the first in a series of interviews that I recorded at ACC’s Responsible Care® and Sustainability Conference, which was held in Miami on May 6th through 9th. In these interviews, we’re discussing not just Responsible Care® and sustainability, but also careers, leadership, corporate priorities, and value creation. They’re really special interviews, and I hope you listen to each and every one.

During this series, you’ll be hearing from some executives that spoke at ACC’s recent Responsible Care® and Sustainability Conference, including Chris Jahn, president and CEO of American Chemistry Council, Michael Heinz, chairman and CEO of BASF Corporation in North America, Bonnie Tully, president of Evonik in North America, Daryl Roberts, Chief Engineering and Operating Officer for DuPont, and Kevin Norfleet, Global Sustainability Director for Celanese. So first of all, 2 “thank you”s I wanna give out on today’s episode to Karen Krchnak for the invitation and to Kelly Montez de Oca, who helped coordinate these interviews.

And they’re really unique and really special. I think what really stood out for me, and this is really where I want to start this episode today, is just the level of unwavering commitment to a better world that was exemplified through these executives and through the hundreds of people in attendance. Plus, of course, the thousands of people across the chemical industry, you and I, and our peers and people we know that are working in chemicals and working for a better future.

One of my favorite sayings, and it has been for a long time is, better living through chemistry, which as it turns out is a tagline that has been used by DuPont for decades. Until the mid-80s when they stopped using it. I would love to see it refreshed because I think it’s there. I guess in many ways, ACC has refreshed this. And with their first ever sustainability report, ACC is coining the phrase, sustainability starts with chemistry. Fundamentally, to get to the sustainable future that we want, we need to use chemistry and chemicals to innovate, create new products, and more.

So before I jump into my interview with Chris, I’d like to share a few things that stood out from the conference. In his opening keynote, Chris Jahn noted that Responsible Care® represents the industry industry’s license to operate. And that’s maybe a bit of a paraphrase. But I think what comes through from that conference, as well as from the interviews that I did with these executives is that Responsible Care® really provides strong foundational principles for companies across the industry, and that’s something very well recognized. An emphasis on safety, environmental practices, and continuous improvement for employees, stakeholders, and the communities we operate in.

Actually, as I discussed with Bonnie Tully, and you’ll hear that one in our interview, I’ve always worked in an industry where Responsible Care® principles were in place. You grew up in the industry and you accept and expect that these strong safety principles are in place. And so that’s certainly what we’re seeing. The second thing that really came through in the conference is this commitment to collaboration across member companies, across the ACC and other organizations, and frankly, to create alignment on common frameworks and objectives.

Responsible Care® is a great example. The new sustainability report and sustainability targets and initiatives are great examples. The work that’s going on to negotiate and develop the UN Plastics Treaty, which is ongoing currently, and Chris and I talk about, is another great example of collaboration towards a common purpose with different approaches. Different companies have different approaches and different needs, but this underlying theme of figuring this out together really comes through.

The other aspect of this commitment to collaboration is the fact that, sustainability is an evolution. We’re requiring new products and new chemistries. A lot of this relies on getting EPA registrations, approvals, and ensuring that we’re able to use some of these new chemistries in our sustainable future, whether it be for semiconductors or for electric vehicles or for bio based products that the chemical industry and the many scientists and business people and engineers are developing. So a real great need to just step up that pace of approval, continuing to work for greater collaboration across the industry and its partners.

The other thing that came through in the conference is this theme that sustainability is not just about big projects and big investments, that everyday behaviors and incremental improvements have a big impact, and that’s something that Bonnie Tully noted during the executive panel at the event and that Bonnie and I talked about during our conversation. But I think it’s easy sometimes for us to think, particularly in small companies that don’t necessarily have the same reach, that don’t have the same footprint, that, well, it’s not as big of a priority for me. Throughout this, it is a big priority. The way to achieving results is different. And we can’t lose sight of the fact that while there are some significant investments going on, there are significant new technologies coming to bear. I think about the whole role of plastic circularity and the new technologies and the new companies that are really helping to drive that future, the reality is there’s a lot of incremental steps across the industry that companies are continuing to take that makes significant improvement.

Then the final thing on this is customers and business partners are seeking sustainability. Daryl Roberts in the executive panel at the event talked about the fact that this is not just a conversation starter, but is a requirement for doing business with many companies. So this is an ongoing focus, and part of the conversations we’re having here, part of the chemical show regularly, part of the conversation we’ll be having at the Chemical Summit this year.

I think this whole aspect of these things, much of which was brought together at this conference and much of which is brought together in ACC’s first ever sustainability report, which brings together a shared perspective across member companies, including data, about the progress that we’re making on sustainability and the theme that I think we’re gonna continue to hear, which is sustainability starts with chemistry.

So onto my conversation with Chris Jahn, I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think, and I hope to see you again soon.

This is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. Today I am speaking with Chris Jahn, who is the president and CEO of ACC, the American Chemistry Council. We are at the ACC’s Responsible Care® and Sustainability Conference. So our conversation today is going to focus in a little bit on that, as well as on a few other things. So Chris, thanks for joining me today.

Thank you for having me.

Excellent, so how did you get involved with the chemical industry? So you came out of university as a political science major, if I’m correct, and you started in politics and then you moved quickly into chemicals, it seems. Is that right?

Indeed. So I’ve been in the industry now for about 20 years. But, I did not set out on this path. And long story short is, as you said, I worked on Capitol Hill for 10 years. I worked for my home state congressman and then senator, and I worked on environmental issues, health, transportation, and safety issues. So the issues that I talked about on stage today, I’ve been working on for, I hate to admit this, over 30 years now.

I like to say that my career was built on dumb blind luck and there’s a lot of elements of truth to that. The story really is that working on these issues on the Hill, interacting on a variety of important issues that have impact on the world always opened the next door. So I’ve been very fortunate to work in the chemical space for the last 20 years in a variety of different roles and sectors but all with the goal of helping our members be successful in interacting with the government.

Yeah. So when you started out working in politics, I’m going to take us astray a little bit, did you think that you would end up in politics, in Congress?

No way, do I want to be a member of Congress or a Senator. I’ve lived inside the belly of that beast and it is not something that is good for your family or your lifestyle. It’s a very brutal and demanding job and I have a lot of respect for the people who do it and for the people that we see on the news and we complain about every day, that’s the 5%. The 95% of them, whether you agree with them or not, they’re good people doing the right thing and doing what they think is the appropriate way to address the issues of the day, but it’s really hard. You gotta raise money all the time, and that’s not for me.

Yeah, interesting. When I was in business school, I took a class from a person who was the former Secretary of Labor and she would bring politicians in occasionally to do stuff and it was always like, number one, 95% of the politicians are working people. Right? And they’re really nice. And she’s like, it’s okay to like them even if the point of view is different. So it was interesting, it was a short glimpse into the inside of that. Obviously you have a big glimpse into the inner workings of how this all works.

Yeah. Like I said, it’s fascinating there, and they can come in all shapes and sizes from all different places in the world. You know, it’s really exciting to work with them on a daily basis.

Banner for biological technology study and research, generative ai sustainability

Obviously your experience has made you well suited to help navigate ACC and its interactions. So when we think about ACC, what are your priorities? Today in 2024, it seems like we’ve gone through a lot of change in the industry in the past, just a couple of years even, what are the priorities that you are focusing on?

So Victoria, we’re guided by four strategic pillars, that’s what we call them. So it’s advocacy, Responsible Care®, sustainability and then industry reputation. The idea behind that is those four things work together. Those pillars work together from this standpoint of, as our members take action through Responsible Care®, through their sustainability agendas to make the world healthier, safer, more sustainable, more productive, that will improve the industry’s reputation over time. If we improve the industry’s reputation over time, that then creates a better political playing field for us, reduces our policy risk, reduces our political risk, and then we can be more successful on our advocacy agenda. So we’re making some progress there.

You were in the morning session, I saw you in the crowd. We talked about all the great things we’re doing, just to summarize real quickly, air pollutants are down, greenhouse gas emission intensity is better, we’re making progress on so many different areas in sustainability. Responsible Care®, we’re five times safer than all manufacturing, we’re three times safer than other companies in the chemical industry. That’s only going to make us more effective advocates for our members going forward. So I’m really proud of that track record.

Yeah, I think it’s great. And it’s everybody coming together in alignment and collaborating to set that direction. So how do you guys make that happen? There is such diversity amongst the member companies of ACC, amongst the politicians in the nation as well as the states that you’re interacting with. How do you create that alignment?

That’s the art of association leadership. I didn’t know that getting into this, but it’s also what gets you out of bed in the morning. Cause it’s really exciting to work for people who matter for an industry that matters, but to also pull them all together so they can row in the same direction for the betterment of the industry. So what we are at ACC is, we’re very member-centric. So the members are at the center of everything we do. They come in to the boardroom wearing the industry hat. So yes, they compete in the marketplace and they want to be successful, but within ACC, we’re trying to move the whole industry forward.

You may have an issue or a challenge that is not specifically important to me from the chemical side of things, but the precedent that the regulation might set for you could impact me down the road. So our members do a really great job of trying to find that alignment, something above least common denominator so that we can work together to achieve a successful policy outcome, so when the next issue comes up we can be successful there too. It all starts with our members and they really drive that going forward. We try to amplify and supplement those points of view so we can get successful efficacy outcomes.

That’s great. It’s maybe a great segue into the plastic treaty negotiations. So I know last week there was round four, I believe, of negotiations for the UN Plastics Treaty. Can you talk about that? Tell us about that, where we’re at, what you see happening.

They’re trying to do a global plastics agreement and plastic pollution in two years. The United Nations is not known for getting anything done in two years, so believe it or not, most international agreements, including for example climate, take about a decade. So number one, they were trying to move really quickly, at least for the U.N. Second, we’re more than 60% way through that time, and we’ve done probably 25% of that work.

So it’s going to be a challenge of laying this plane at the end of the year on a successful agreement. Having said that, we really want that to happen. We want an agreement that ends plastic pollution in the environment, but still takes advantage of the opportunities that plastic provides for health care, for automobiles, for carbon reductions, all the good things that plastics are responsible for, and that’s driven by circularity. So we’re really excited about the opportunity to be able to do that. Now, the question is, can that happen? I think the positive outcome in Ottawa last week is that they did agree to work in between sessions. They call that intersessional work.

To be able to get a final agreement in Korea in November, they’re gonna have to make a lot of progress. Two key issues that they’re talking about right now are, first financing. So there’s somewhere close to 3 billion people in the world who do not have access to modern waste management, which is obviously what’s part of driving the plastic waste in the environment. That’s not places like the EU or the United States. That’s in Africa or Southeast Asia. So how do we help finance modern waste management so that we can keep pollution from getting in the environment influencing plastic pollution?

Then the second big issue that’s going to have to be addressed is what some are calling, chemicals of concern or plastics of concern. And what we are saying at ACC is let’s keep the main thing, which is any plastic pollution in the environment. This is a big year for the world in terms of elections. It’s not just the United States. So a lot of people are talking about that.

In D.C., sometimes you have what we call a Christmas tree. So it’s the last bill that’s moving out of Congress and everybody tries to attach their pet issue to it. Well, that’s also happening in this plastic screen. People want to address chemical issues. They want to address air issues and they’re trying to attach that to the treaty. We’re saying, wait a minute, we’re trying to address plastic pollution in the environment. Let’s focus on that. We can get an agreement on that. Once that mission is accomplished, there’s other places to address those issues, whether it’s climate, there’s a global framework on chemicals.

This is all a lot more than you wanted to know maybe.

No it’s all good. I love it.

But there are places to address legitimate issues of concern and we should address them there. And the UN has forums in which to do that. So that’s what we’re pushing for.

Using biomass and chemistry to conserve nature,Supporting efficient use of resources,Balanced use of biomass sustainability

Yeah, I agree. I mean, the whole aspect of scope creep, right? With every project, it’s always good to go back to, okay, what was our mission here? Let’s not allow scope creep. It sounds just like the home renovation I did a few years ago. There was a lot, but you got a lot of scope creep, one of my friends calls it the, if you give a mouse a cookie problem. You do one thing and then you do the next thing and the next thing. In Congress, everybody has their own pet project or pet issue, and navigating that is challenging.

Yep, absolutely. There’s a lot of pressure on world governments to take action on a variety of issues. And they’re trying to sincerely and genuinely respond to that pressure, and I understand that. But at the same time, to your point, what are we here to do? Let’s get it done, and then we can move on to those other issues and those other forms to address those legitimates.

What happens if it’s not done by November?

So they could just keep going. I mean, they can choose to keep negotiating. They’ve set a goal, and we would like them to reach the goal so we can start implementation, because it’ll take a while to address this issue over time. But if they want to keep working on it, they can keep working on it. Now look, there’s elections in the EU next month. There’s elections in the United States in November. There’s a lot of things that can happen internationally over time.

It gets harder the longer you take. So there’ll be some pressure to get this done by the end of the year. But if we need to keep going, we keep going. I’d rather get it right the first time than do something that doesn’t make sense and then try to fix it for the next 10 years.

Absolutely. As you know, everybody says, we want any policy or regulation that goes in to be science-based, and you have to be able to operationalize it. If you put something in place that you can’t actually do, that’s aspirational, but are you ever going to get there? So it has to be science-based, risk-based, and able to be implemented.

So speaking of implementation, ACC’s just launched its first sustainability report. So what drove that? What did you learn along the way and how is it going to be used?

So what drove that was a desire among ACC and its members to be able to tell our story. I know you just had a podcast on storytelling. So, kind of fitting with that same idea of we make modern life possible, we make the world healthier, safer, more sustainable, more productive. Most people don’t actually know that. So we want to start, frankly, being a little more proud of the industry and taking credit for that. Literally everything that’s manufactured starts with chemistry.

Chemistry is the science behind sustainability. We wanted to drive that message home by giving concrete examples of that. Just take for example, the Inflation Reduction Act. My DC guys always come to this DC lens. But, if you’re looking at alternative sources of energy, if you’re looking at a lower carbon emissions future, our members are responsible for all of that. Carbon capture, hydrogen, solar, wind. I mean, I could talk on and on and on. But the point being, we are driving sustainability.

You need us to get that done. So we want to take some credit for it, quite honestly, where our members are very proud of it. It’s not just enabling sustainability for downstream industries, which is tremendously important, of course. But also our members are making progress on reducing emissions in their own facilities and driving technology as far as that goes as well. So we’re really excited about where we are and where we’re going, what the future looks like in the sustainability space. We wanted to tell that story.

That’s cool. And does this report include consolidated data from member companies?

Yes. So we actually have tons of data about our members and the progress they’ve made over time. We provide some case studies about cool projects that are our members are pursuing. Under Responsible Care®, some of your listeners will know this, that’s a mandatory program of membership. So it’s third party audited and we are collecting now sustainability data that our members have to give us. In regards to air emissions and some other key topics.

So yes, we’ll be able to track our progress over time as the industry continues to get better and better and better. This is not your grandfather’s chemical industry and I’m really excited about where the future is going to take us.

I know one of the keynotes today was about AI and the use of AI in industry and really data and data analytics ties into that. How is ACC approaching that? Are you guys starting to use AI in your processes as you collect and analyze data?

Yeah. In terms of AI, that’s a tremendous opportunity, both for the association itself and for our members. So you heard some examples during the session today about what our members are doing using AI to make their production processes, for example, more efficient. I think as you look at R&D, there’s another tremendous opportunity for our members to accelerate that progress and drive innovation. I think for ACC the way I look at is two different ways. One is both internally and how we can be more productive and efficient for ourselves. We’ve got some projects in the queue, not quite ready for prime time yet, but we’ll make our team more efficient on behalf of our members going forward. Then more publicly I look at government regulations, so that’s one of the things we’re obviously focused on at ACC.

How can we help governments be more science and risk-based going forward and move more quickly? We’ve got a huge problem with EPA right now. The new chemicals program at EPA has about 400 chemicals in the queue right now. They’re supposed to be addressed no later than six months. You develop a new chemistry, it’s going to solve all these problems. It’s going to be more sustainable and EPA has 180 days to decide if they want to approve it or not. Right now, it’s taking about an average of two years.

We’ve got members who have had products waiting five years for approval. That’s unacceptable to us. So what we want to do is talk with the agency about how can we leverage AI to move that process forward more quickly. So we think that the technology has got tremendous application in a government space that can help us have more effective science based regulation going forward.

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Smart. Makes sense. So final question here, leadership. You are a leader yourself, leading an organization, a big organization, and you interact with leaders across the industry on a daily basis and leaders in politics on a daily and regular basis. Are there a few characteristics that really stand out in terms of these leaders and what has allowed them to be at such great levels of leadership?

Yeah, so we’re blessed at ACC to have tremendous leaders. Our board, our executive committee, our officers work with them on a regular basis. The smartest people you ever met. But that’s not what necessarily jumps out to me. What jumps out to me is number one, integrity. You don’t always hear that in Washington, right? But the idea is that you can count on me to deliver on what I say I would do. That’s an ethos of Responsible Care®. We’re accountable for our actions and we track our actions.

But it’s also integrity in terms of making sure that the industry is doing the right thing the right way. That really drives us. I know perhaps that’s not the perception of people outside the industry, but we take that very seriously. I’m proud to work with people who think integrity comes first. I think that the second thing then and it goes hand in hand with that is really this idea of continual improvement. That’s an ethos of Responsible Care® as well. I just said before, this is not your grandfather’s chemical industry.

We are making tremendous progress in our industry, and we’re really proud of that. We’re going to continue to do that going forward. It’s important to do that cause it’s the right thing to do, but it’s important to do that to help advance humanity. So here’s the thing, we’re going to solve tremendous global challenges from the chemical industry. For example, we talked about climate change, our members drive all that technology, all the progress that’s being made in a lower carbon emissions future.

It is not some entrepreneur with a crazy app that’s going to solve that problem. It’s engineers and scientists solving problems at scale. That’s what’s going to address climate change. It’s really cool to work with people who are driven every day to wake up and solve the world’s biggest challenges. That’s really exciting, and that’s what I think of when I think of our members.

Awesome. Well, Chris, thank you for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Thank you for having me. That was fun.

Yeah. Absolutely.

About Chris Jahn:

As President and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), Chris Jahn is responsible for advancing ACC’s mission to advocate for the people, policy, and products of chemistry that make the United States the global leader in innovation and manufacturing. Chris has been named by The Hill as one of Washington, DC’s “Top Lobbyists” and by the Washingtonian as one of DC’s “Most Influential People” for representing the U.S. business of chemistry and its customers within the halls of Congress. Prior to joining ACC in 2019, Chris served as President and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, president of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, and president of the Contract Services Association. He began his career on Capitol Hill, including time as chief of staff to U.S. Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY).