BASF’s Director of Sustainability on How to Embed Responsible Environmental Practices into Your Business: Q&A with Mitchell Toomey

Mitchell Toomey has had an interesting career. From building multiple startups to helping develop the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals to now serving as BASF’s director of sustainability, Toomey has seen the intersection of sustainable technology and business from many different angles.

BASF, one of the world’s leading chemical companies, has been a partner of Greentown Labs since 2017. BASF’s deep engagement with Greentown has included helping found the incubator’s wet lab, sponsoring two wet lab benches for startups, and serving as the lead partner on the Circularity Challenge—a Greentown Launch accelerator program designed to advance innovative solutions to enable a circular economy.

As the leader of BASF’s sustainability practice, what are your driving principles or goals?

We’re fortunate to have an entire company that has bought into sustainability and a corporate strategy that clearly articulates our specific sustainability measures and targets.

What drives me is how to take all of this potential and scale it up. How do you take it to the same level of mainstream business as other tools within a large company like this? That isn’t so much a technology challenge as it is a behavioral challenge, a business challenge, and a legislative challenge. So looking at the multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder challenges of taking this from commitment to action is what really excites me.

You said you’re focused on scaling this industry’s potential. How are you tackling that challenge?

Instead of trying to draw people into some new mode of thinking about sustainability, you have to find a way to insinuate sustainability metrics into the standard business KPIs. So when making a decision about building a new plant or putting some new product in line, there’s a lot of decision-making that goes on along the process, and you have to find those opportunities as early and upstream as possible to integrate the sustainability outcomes along with the economic outcomes. We have methodologies for that, we have great trend-setting tools for thinking through those business challenges.

What’s unique about how BASF approaches sustainability?

We have our Sustainable Solution Steering methodology, which is embedded in our R&D, it’s embedded in our business planning, and as of the end of last year it’s embedded in our corporate financial commitments to investors.

It’s a methodology that looks at our entire portfolio and analyzes all of the potential sustainability impacts of a product and categorizes them. At the highest level we have what are called “accelerators,” which are products that have an outsized sustainability benefit. The next category down we call “performers,” so those are great products with absolutely no sustainability baggage, no sourcing issues. They do have the benefits, but they’re not over-performing the market. Then we have a category at the bottom called the “challenge” products, and those are the ones that have been identified as containing materials or using processes that are becoming out of vogue, and we’re seeing legislation move away from those for some of our customers, and so we believe the demand will drop. We make a commitment to get out of those products within a five-year time frame.

By having done all the science, by having done the rigorous analysis and research and building that methodology across our business, we can now communicate that out to the market, out to investors, to give a financial picture of what our sustainability work will entail. It also allows us to build our sustainability metrics right into common management systems and investor reports and so on. Once you’ve mainstreamed sustainability to that degree and once you have a comprehensive management system around it, it’s much less of a qualitative advocacy ambition and much more of a new way of doing business.

Earlier in your career, you helped build two startups. How do those experiences shape how you think about working with startups at BASF?

I’ve had the opportunity to roll up my sleeves in the startup mode and also in a corporate and in public affairs, and you get a sense for why multi-stakeholder approaches are really what’s necessary for societal change.

What the startup brings to it is the freedom of innovation, a lack of legacy constraints, and the unfettered ability to move quickly in a creative direction. Now, to scale that you need to partner with those that have the assets and the techniques and the scale to take a good idea and actually make it widely implemented.

Having been in a startup, you don’t have much capital. You have to understand how day-to-day, hand-to-mouth startup culture is. To take the benefits of that highly creative, highly dynamic type of work, you have to work at that speed, at that agility. You have to have some capacity in your large company to almost set up a startup interface. Cash flow becomes the primary issue—if you want them to deliver the goods, they have to be able to pay the bills. 

I’d love to hear about your experience with the UN Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign.

The Sustainable Development Goals is an agreement that was made in 2015 by all the member states of the UN—unanimously, every country committed to a common definition of sustainability. I think that was a watershed moment; it’s allowed for businesses and others to really accelerate work on sustainability.

It was a very complex negotiation, which I was involved with by bringing in the business sector and others to the table, so that when this set of goals was developed it wasn’t dismissed immediately as, “Oh, that’s some lofty UN fantasy agreement.” This was actually built by what we called the “Global Conversation.” I was able to run consultations with business and with youth groups and religious groups and many others to give them the chance to have their say and help write this. 

One of the reasons I was proud to join BASF was because it made a commitment to look at the value of its work through the lens of these goals and look at the comprehensive value to society—not just by the materials we produce, but the way we treat our workers and the way we treat the communities that we host our business in, and so on. 

Looking forward, what are some big topics and trends in sustainability technology that you think will come to the forefront in 2020?

One of the things that I think we will see is recycling infrastructure. It’s about how to make the business case and get the infrastructure paid for, and how to overcome some of the bottlenecks in materials recycling. That will require a lot of innovation, a lot of startups.

Battery technology, electric vehicle charging stations—that’s an ongoing trend. Together with several companies, we are working on innovations for the charging infrastructure and powering solutions based on renewable, decentralized sources. 

I think sourcing and transparency is another area. People want to know where the materials they’re buying are coming from. We’re answering a lot of questions for our customers, people suddenly want to know what exactly is in their product and where it came from. We have the basic information about that, we can share that, but there’s a digitalization, a blockchain challenge about how can you trace something from the ground or the mine or the lab all the way through into a product, and then how do you use that information to efficiently and intelligently recycle or deal with the end of life cycle.

How does the Circularity Challenge fit into how you want to work with startups and achieve your sustainability goals?

Nothing spurs actual action more quickly than doing a challenge—not just having a framework or a strategy, but putting a problem statement out there. Greentown is a very unique partner, and so we have a lot of great things to say about how much the facilitation provided by Greentown Labs and the program makes it easier for us to plug-and-play into a startup ecosystem, in a way that we might not otherwise have the infrastructure to do. This is a great example of a multi-stakeholder approach.

Greentown Labs is a community of bold, passionate entrepreneurs creating solutions for today’s biggest climate and environmental challenges. Located in Somerville, Mass., Greentown Labs is the largest cleantech incubator in North America, operating a 100,000 sq. ft. campus comprised of prototyping and wet lab space, shared office space, a machine shop, electronics lab, and a curated suite of programs and resources. Greentown Labs is home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 230 since its inception.