The CHT Group develops and produces specialty chemicals and silicone elastomers for a wide range of industrial processes. The chemicals improve for example the functionality of textiles, construction materials, paints, coatings, paper, leather, cleaning and care products, and the silicones are used in the medical technology and electronics industries.
The Group headquarters in Tübingen coordinates 25 operating companies worldwide. To ensure that the company's commitment to sustainability can also have a global impact, the CHT Group created the new position of Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) on October 1, 2021, which has been held by Annegret Vester. CHEManager asked her about her strategy and goals.
CHEManager: Dr. Vester, even before your appointment as CSO, you were involved in the transformation of CHT into a chemical company that is now clearly focused on sustainability. How did the early days of sustainability management look like?
A. Vester: Almost 10 years ago, CHT recognized that the topic of sustainability would have a high relevance for the orientation of the company. At that time, we started with an analysis, the determination of the status quo and the definition of the sustainability topics that are important for CHT. We did this - supported by the Chemie3 initiative - by means of a sustainability check.
In 2015, we then already incorporated sustainability goals into the corporate strategy and firmly anchored them via the company vision of being the preferred partner and leading reference for sustainable chemical solutions in our markets worldwide.
From the very beginning, sustainability management has been steered by the Sustainability Steering Committee within the company. The appointment of the CEO, Frank Naumann, and the CTO, Bernhard Hettich, clearly shows that sustainability is a management issue at CHT. This fact demands - but even more has supported - our sustainability management. I am a founding member and have also been a member of the steering committee before my appointment as CSO.
CHT has set itself sustainability priorities as part of its "Strategy 2025". What are these?
A. Vester: It is still of utmost importance for us to offer sustainable chemical solutions and products that help our customers and the entire supply chain to become more sustainable. This also includes requirements such as circularity.
The next major task focus deals with climate protection. We have been a partner of the VCI's Chemistry4Climate platform since 2020 and committed to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and climate neutrality by 2045 by signing the Science-Based Targets Declaration at the end of 2021.
A further focus is coming our way with the implementation of the Supply Chain Sourcing Act as of 2024, and we will use the following months to prepare accordingly.
What will be your tasks in the new position, what will be your focus?
A. Vester: My team's tasks are extensive, as we will be drawing up the first carbon footprint for the CHT Group over the next few months on the basis of internal data collected worldwide. Based on this balance sheet, we will develop ambitious but at the same time realistic goals for the CO2 reduction of the CHT Group and define them in the Sustainability Steering Committee.
In terms of climate protection, we are also not only focusing on our own company but will continue to work along the supply chain on solutions that support our customers in their climate protection goals.
In addition, we have not only made a commitment to improve our sustainability performance, but we have this verified annually through EcoVadis certification.
The creation of the CSO position fits a company that sees sustainability as a strategic decision for future viability and as an investment in its company success.
How will this affect CHT in practice, what measures are you planning?
A. Vester: We would like to position the perception of sustainability much more strongly within CHT, but also externally. The scope of tasks and the demands on companies have increased, and we consider it extremely important to be prepared for all facets that the European Green Deal will entail.
In the future, CHT will position itself in the market for sustainability even more strongly than before - including within the associations and in cooperation with other players.
For example, the transformation of the chemical industry to climate neutrality will place equal demands on all participants in the supply chain, in terms of data procurement, reporting obligations and reduction of emissions, while at the same time increasing the need for availability of renewable energy and sustainable raw materials. For medium-sized companies like CHT, this means not only that those resources must be created now, but also that we must become involved in the discussion about the industry's strategy and pre-requisites so that it does not remain focused solely on the needs of large-scale industry.
Even more so, this participation and positioning is important when considering the emerging changes that the topic of circular economy as well as the new EU chemicals strategy for sustainability will bring. Changes are planned as part of the chemicals strategy, such as polymer REACH, which will pose major financial challenges for innovative companies in the German SME sector. In addition, further changes are planned to ensure a pollutant-free environment under the EU Green Deal. It is feared that these will have a negative impact on the global competitiveness of German chemical companies and downstream industry. Here, too, it is important to get involved at association level when work is being done on a risk assessment by industry associations. For example, we have been involved in the ongoing CEFIC Risk Assessment "Chemical Strategy Sustainability" since the beginning of 2021.
The range of tasks for global sustainability management in the CHT Group is extensive, diverse, and challenging. In addition, the way ahead will require a large investment from CHT, but we will continue to pursue this path with our industry partners and customers with undeterred determination.
You want to align your corporate strategy with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals - SDGs. That sounds abstract at first. Can you give specific examples of the fields of action you have defined for CHT?
A. Vester: The SDGs only appear abstract at first glance, but if you delve deeper into them, you almost get a guideline. It is actually a matter of answering the following questions for your own company: Which SDGs are relevant for us, our company? Where are we already making a good contribution? Where should we improve? And: Which SDGs are important, and which relate to the megatrends of our time?
In our experience, once we have defined our own position, it is no longer so difficult to link it to our own strategic goals. Our general fields of action are in the direction of a sustainable product range, including the enabling of circular economy, and thus we not only cover SDGs 8 and 12, but also - depending on the industrial application and use of the product - SDGs 3, 6, 13, 14 and 15.
In addition, we have set ourselves internal, non-financial goals that affect the Sustainable Development Goals in addition to the climate protection already mentioned, such as reducing occupational accidents.
The SDGs in ecology play a central role for your operational business. CHT wants to become the leading reference in sustainable chemical solutions. Do you have examples of individual applications?
A. Vester: Examples exist in all our business fields and the industries they serve. Take the textile industry which is currently considered environmentally critical in parts of the world because it is responsible for high CO2 emissions and wastewater volumes. For the CHT Group, textile chemicals are part of our traditional business, which is why we have also been making efforts together with our customers for decades to make textile processes more sustainable and environmentally compatible. For example, years ago we launched a sustainable dyeing process for cellulosic fibers that enables textile finishers to save up to 20% energy and 37% water in the process. The dyes that are part of the concept have very high fiber affinity, and the package of processing aids was also specifically developed.
Another example of a sustainable chemical solution for the textile industry is the first biodegradable and Cradle2Cradle certified textile printing system CHT Ecoprint. A well-known German discounter approached us a few years ago with the idea. They wanted to market biodegradable textiles and needed the appropriate chemicals. In accordance with the specifications of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency, EPEA, such a printing system was implemented, and in the meantime the discounter has included the corresponding textiles in its range.
However, such examples also exist in other industry segments. CHT customers in the paper industry together saved the electricity consumption of a small German town in 2020 with a process based on a special enzyme formulation. In total, this enzyme technology saved over 13,100 MWh of electricity, which is equivalent to supplying about 4,370 households. In addition, the process allows faster-growing short fibers to be processed for the first time.
For the examples mentioned, investments in Research & Development were and still are necessary. How competitive are innovative, sustainable products compared to conventional products?
A. Vester: Innovations do have their price, and here lies the dilemma: As neither all consumers nor all players within the supply chain are yet willing to pay a higher price for sustainable products and solutions, such innovative processes can only be implemented slowly.
What are you doing to drive acceptance?
A. Vester: In our view, the creation of globally comparable competitive conditions appears to be important, which could be driven forward, among other things, by the creation or acceptance of uniform standards. The CHT Group is one of the founding members of "Sustainable Chemistry for the Textile Industry" - SCTI, an alliance of the seven leading textile chemical companies. The goal of SCTI is to make the global textile industry more sustainable.
Annegret Vester has been Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) of CHT Germany since October 2021. Vester, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Stuttgart, has been with the Tübingen-based chemical company since 2001, initially as Head of Global Marketing and, since 2019, as Head of Strategy & New Business Development. In these roles, she has already accompanied CHT's transformation into a chemical company focused on sustainability.