Today’s Solutions: October 24, 2021

Cement is a basic building block of economic growth. Its manufacture also produces twice as many CO2 emissions as aviation. How Bertrand Collomb and industry giant Lafarge are laying the foundations for sustainable cement.

Peter Van Dijk | October 2008 issue

Homes, offices, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges: They’re sprouting up in emerging economies throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. These countries need cement to keep them on the path of economic progress. But the production of this basic material is a major source of CO2. The cement industry already accounts for 5 percent of global CO2 emissions, twice as much as the aviation industry. Given that China, which is responsible for nearly half the production and use of cement, will continue to build cities that have populations in the millions, the cement sector needs to contribute to saving the planet. Fortunately, that’s exactly what Bertrand Collomb has in mind.
Collomb is honorary chairman of the French firm Lafarge, one of the world’s largest producers of cement and building materials. Active in 76 countries, Lafarge has more than 90,000 employees and a gross income of about $35 billion. Now 65, Collomb ran the company for years and is among the most important advisors to his successor, Bruno Lafont. So how does a major multinational polluter clean up its act?
In a modest office, Collomb pours coffee for his two guests. Outside, the 16th arrondissement of Paris is bathed in watery sunshine. The Frenchman says that for years, Lafarge has felt obligated to consider its responsibility as a polluter. “The CO2 emissions from cement production are a huge and important topic in our industry; no one can avoid it,” he begins. “We realized that long before [former U.S. vice-president] Al Gore began to warn the world.”
He talks about the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the framework was established for what became the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), a coalition of some 200 international companies. For several years, Collomb chaired this membership association, the slogan of which is “Dedicated to Making a Difference.” This is just one of the items on Collomb’s curriculum vita, along with being a member of the European Round Table of Industrials, a member of think tanks like the Bilderberg Group and the Clinton Global Initiative, as well as a member of the board of the chemical multinational DuPont and the world’s fourth-largest oil and gas company, Total, among others. He says his children tease him about all his memberships. He asks his guests if they’d like sugar and milk in their coffee. S’il vous plaît.
Collomb considers involvement in coalitions and organizations one of the most important tasks of a business leader. It encourages people to think about the way company culture can change, he says, and helps you learn to assess which trends can help restructure a company’s future. “One of the reasons I wanted to spend part of my time outside the company is related to this,” he adds. “As the boss, I believed you seek out information that doesn’t automatically land on your desk from within your company. It is, in fact, the information that comes from outside that spurs your intuition and helps you stay a step ahead of the competition on new developments.”
Of course, as CEO, Collomb also listened to individuals inside the firm. “If I didn’t completely understand something, I learned more about it and looked for people in the company who could explain everything to me,” he says. “They were often found among my advisory staff, but four or five levels lower in the company.”
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The approach Lafarge’s management takes to human capital—which Collomb says is characterized by attention and respect—appealed to him when he applied for a job there 32 years ago. It played a role in the decision of this engineer’s son to join the company. Be open and curious and don’t be led by money but by people, Collomb learned from his parents at a young age. This view shaped him. Ask him who his gurus are and he rattles off the names of his predecessors at Lafarge.
It was together with those colleagues that he began searching for solutions to the pollution caused by cement production. “When you make cement, you can’t avoid CO2 emissions,” Collomb says. “But we can consider how we can produce less cement or better cement so we can curb emission levels. And we’re looking beyond what we do in the factories. After all, our end product isn’t cement but concrete, which is used to build structures. So we must ask ourselves: How can you build using less concrete? And thinking further: What will the home of the future look like, using less energy? Can we develop products to that end? When you’re the boss, you need to stimulate that way of thinking. It’s also very important that you remain continually open to change and not keep things status quo. You can’t artificially hang on to traditions; you need to have the courage to adapt without losing sight of your core values.”
Unfortunately, Collomb’s welcome words are caught in a reality that’s difficult to embellish. When you make cement, limestone and clay are heated until they melt, blending to form a material called “klinker,” which is mixed with other components to produce cement. The heating process, usually requiring the use of coal, and the resulting chemical reaction culminate in the release of exorbitant amounts of CO2. And unfortunately, cement can’t be recycled; every new house requires new cement.
But Lafarge’s sustainability report reveals the company’s lofty ambitions and the progress it has made toward them in the past year. For example, Lafarge uses energy more efficiently than before and is making increased use of sustainable energy to operate its factories. In addition, it has developed a more sustainable type of concrete that uses less cement, and is using more waste as fuel. The company is also working with the World Wildlife Fund to enable reforestation and preserve nature near its factories.
Lafarge has been a pioneer in this sector, but it’s not the only one to make progress. “Five years ago, the 12 biggest cement companies in the world decided to take joint action,” Collomb explains. “That was a real breakthrough because the development of benchmarks for the industry as a whole and the objective testing of that benchmark takes time and money. Initially, there was a lot of skepticism, but now each company has clear objectives. For Lafarge, CO2 emissions must be cut by 20 percent in 2010. We’re already at 16 percent at Lafarge, which is a real milestone.”
Collomb is visibly pleased his company is achieving measurable results. He believes Europe is an inspiring example. “Europeans simply need to accept that they have to take a somewhat less ideological stance on the environment in order to effect a global system that works,” he says.
And what about the U.S.? Collomb, who has a second home in America, says it isn’t politics but business that sets the tone for green thinking. “There is currently a rather strange situation in America: The environmental movement is strong. Every week I get piles of brochures from U.S. environmental groups. But at the same time, the environment has never been a significant election-campaign issue. Even when Al Gore was a candidate, he rarely brought up the environment because he knew it was not the issue that would get him elected. It’s really unbelievable, but it has to do with how the political campaigns are financed.”
According to Collomb, U.S. company heads are very environmentally aware—if only because they operate internationally and see that Europeans, in particular, consider this an important issue. “They often feel they are not bound to the official American political line,” he says. “There are, of course, always exceptions, including companies like Exxon Mobil that until recently had the audacity to contend that there was no such thing as climate change. Generally, however, players in the international business sector are much more aligned in their vision of the environment and sustainability than in international politics. The problem remains, however, that it’s a global problem and there’s still no organization that can set rules for every country. The World Trade Organization might be able to, and I actually think they will, but we need to be patient for a couple more years.”
Collomb emphasizes that China shouldn’t be underestimated as a partner on the path to a sustainable world. “Lafarge has a Chinese subsidiary. It’s impressive to see how quickly they’re changing. Five years ago, no one in China cared about climate change. Now, when a Chinese mission comes to Europe, there are only two things on their agenda: the social inequality between East and West and sustainable energy.”
As this diplomat of the international business community surfs through the sustainable future of the world, one question remains: Given his experience and vast network, surely he can play a role in ensuring issues like the environment and sustainability are high on the global political agenda? “I don’t think the business sector should lead the debate,” he says. “Ultimately, that’s something the political world needs to handle. But we can provide ideas and inspiration. Nowadays most companies link sustainable production and development with their own business activity. So sustainability has become an important topic for everyone, and that makes me optimistic.”
Collomb hastens to add that he’s an optimist by nature. “I think it’s ridiculous to say that people shouldn’t make full use of the technological possibilities available to them, because they will. The crucial question is, will they use them constructively or destructively? I think we want to develop ways to ensure that new techniques will benefit the world.
“We’re not on this Earth to discourage new development in order to protect the planet,” Collomb concludes, “but we must look for new ways to continue developing things that will be useful to the next generation. [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy recently said that this is the first generation that truly has a mission to save the next generation. And that’s the truth. For the first time in history, we humans realize that we hold responsibility for our own destiny. Until now, we had no sense of this. It is truly a historic change.”
Max Christern is editor of the Dutch edition of Ode. Peter van Dijk wrote about the silent garden in Orsan, France, in the July/August 2008 issue.

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