For 3M's Kurt Werner, Finding Impact Work Is About the Chemistry
You may know 3M’s ubiquitous yellow Post-it® notes and plaid-swathed Scotch® tape but Kurt Werner, Environmental Affairs Manager for the company’s electronics markets, has spent his career focusing on many of 3M’s 55,000 other products. Many of these are distributed in highly-regulated markets like manufacturing, healthcare, transportation, and safety and security – and that means Kurt has his hands full to ensure not only legal compliance but environmental safety, as well.
But thanks to a background in environmental health and a strong commitment from his employer to dream up innovative products that change the way materials interact with our environment, he’s carved out a career that feeds his need to make an impact. “When we went down this road to try to differentiate ourselves based on the sustainability issue, not much of the market cared,” says Kurt. “Now of course, there is a much bigger percent of the market making decisions with sustainability issues in mind and understanding that it makes good business sense.”
It might seem odd that a company possibly best known for a mundane yellow square of paper has such an engrained commitment to sustainable innovation, but it’s been like this for decades. In fact, Post-it adhesive was invented during the company’s famed 15 Percent Time, a 50-year-old program that allows employees to use a portion of their paid time to pursue their own ideas that they believe may benefit the company.
Taking Pride in Behind-the-Scenes Innovation
Then in the 1970s, 3M established its 3P (Pollution Prevention Pays) Program. “Most of our markets are subject to the Montreal Protocol, a 23-year-old United Nations treaty that addressed the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances,” says Kurt. The ink was hardly dry before it became clear that global climate change would also be impacting these same markets, and 3M Electronics became sharply focused on the issue.
The company saw this changing regulatory landscape as an opportunity to create new products that didn’t simply meet minimum regulatory requirements, but were more sustainable while working as well as – or better than – the products they were designed to replace. For someone like Kurt, that’s important. “We are reducing our environmental footprint by inventing more sustainable products,” he says, “and in the process, we’ve grown a very successful business that ultimately also helps our customers be successful, as well. I have as much pride in the latter as the former.”
Kurt points to 3M’s Novec™ line of products that are “helping markets move away from both ozone depleters and compounds with really high global warming potential.” A Novec fire suppressant or electronics cleaner can reduce greenhouse gasses and offer a more effective product than the legacy chemical being used by the industry today. This means 3M both minimize its own environmental footprint, while also making a substantial impact on reducing the footprint of the markets it serves.
Focusing on Collaboration to Make an Impact
Kurt’s passion for fire suppressants and electronics-related chemistry may not seem particularly glamorous on the surface, but he’s worked in the industry long enough to know that making an impact isn’t always about glamour and glory. Starting off as a consultant in corporate toxicology (making sure the chemicals in 3M products complied with governmental regulations), he eventually became a product responsibility liaison, where he could work directly with stakeholders to encourage the consideration of sustainability in product design.
Five years ago, Kurt moved into his current role as Environmental Affairs Manager for 3M Electronics Markets. He now focuses on government advocacy, and regulatory and policy issues. While drawing on his technical background, his position now allows him greater influence on – and insight into – the realities of impact work, regardless of industry.
“We can have great solutions, but right doesn’t always win the day,” he says. “There are always different perspectives on a given issue and maybe even some politics involved. To make progress on a given issue, people need to meet in the middle and find a common solution that all stakeholders can be a part of and hold up as an achievement.”
To learn more about 3M and their approach to sustainable innovation, join Kurt Werner and Jean Sweeney of 3M on April 12 for Incubating Tomorrow's Solutions.