Tom Degun: Dropping in at Dow Chemical Company headquarters
Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Since signing their sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2010, the second largest chemical manufacturer in the world has faced a barrage of protests from campaigners looking to associate Dow with the Bhopal 1984 disaster that saw a toxic gas leak from a chemical plant kill thousands of people in one of the world's worst industrial accidents.
Following the Bhopal disaster, Union Carbide, who were involved with the plant, settled its liabilities with the Indian Government by paying $470 million (£310 million/€351 million) to Bhopal victims and even though Dow bought Union Carbide several years after the compensation deal, they have come under fire from protesters who say their Olympic sponsorship money should go to victims, not the Games.
It was a story I was obviously aware of.
I've now heard several different versions of it, but I pulled into Dow's headquarters, for my tour of the facility, with a blank sheet of paper and ready to listen.
Joining me on the tour was no less than Dow's vice-president of Olympic Operations George Hamilton (pictured below, right), who himself had a fascinating story to tell.
He joined Dow in 1977 as a seller of plastics to the automotive industry and has held a variety of positions in sales, marketing, application development and business operations during his 35 years with the company.
Shortly after meeting with Hamilton, I was taken on a whistle-stop tour of some of Dow's laboratories, where I was shown the advanced technology that has gone into making the London 2012 Olympic Stadium wrap, sponsored for £7 million ($11 million/€8 million), that will encase the key venue – the Olympic Stadium – during the Games.
I wish I could recite all the information I was given for you science buffs out there, but unfortunately, due to a combination of jetlag and the fact that science was never my strongest subject, some of the technicalities were lost on me.
But I did just about manage to get the gist of what was going on.
The wrap has been designed in groundbreaking fashion to be completely sustainable, with 100 per cent of the material being reusable. I was told that one possible idea is to turn the special material into tents for the Red Cross following the conclusion of the Games.
I had a chance to feel the wrap material, and to be honest to a mere journalist like me, it didn't feel overly different from an ordinary plastic sheet. However, I can assure you that some of the complex science and chemistry involved in making, perhaps, the most sustainable material in history has taken months of work by several geniuses. Come London 2012, I will probably be one of the few to realise that the plastic surrounding the Olympic Stadium is actually a hugely complicated piece of sustainable kit – consisting of various different particles that I have already forgotten the name of.
The point of the wrap, Hamilton explained, is to demonstrate how Dow's chemistry and technology contributes to sustainability. Their innovations are actually in the walls and ceilings of almost every Games venue; the wrap is more of exhibition, if you will.
"There are too many applications that have Dow chemistry at London 2012 for me to discuss, but none of them are as visible or as iconic as the wrap," Hamilton said.
"It is great that it is going to encircle the most iconic, visual property of the London Games and everybody who sees the Games, either in person or on television, will at some point see that wrap. Although there is obviously no branding on it, everybody is going to know that is the wrap provided by Dow.
"But it is not just the fact that it is produced by Dow that is the most important thing; it is what is behind why we did it. We did it to demonstrate a more environmentally friendly way of bringing innovation and solving a problem. The wrap is just one area where we can apply our scientists and demonstrate our belief that science and humanity can solve any problem. The wrap does give us that great visual and visible ability to tell that story."
The wrap's colour, I am informed, will be added by London 2012 to fit with the "look and feel" of the Games, and will be unveiled shortly before the Opening Ceremony on July 27.
More laboratories, more explanations about the technology involved in the wrap, and then finally, a surprising but pleasant trip to Dow's special InVision Zero home (pictured above) down an ordinary looking road full of houses in Midland. I'm guessing, you might be wondering what an InVision Zero home actually is?
In a nutshell, Dow recently teamed with Cobblestone Homes to make a net-zero energy home to educate the public and homebuilders about the possibilities of energy efficiency. It uses approximately 70 per cent less energy than a conventional home. It is not at all related to the Olympics and Paralympics, but similar to the wrap, it is an exhibition piece from Dow to show how their green technology can help the world.
It was here that I got to ask Hamilton that burning question about Bhopal and the disaster (victims pictured below).
"The Bhopal issue is a terrible incident," he said.
"It was one of the worst industrial incidents in history. Many, many people tragically died. Many people are still suffering. I get it. I really do get it. I feel for those people who have to deal with that. But to go from there, to saying it is Dow's issue, is irresponsible.
"There is a clear line between Union Carbide entering into an agreement with the with Carbide India Limited, which is the company that actually designed, built, owned and operated that plant in Bhopal. Union Carbide was an investor. They entered into a settlement agreement, overseen by the Supreme Court of India, reviewed by Supreme Court of India, and upheld twice.
"Union Carbide divested all of their investment in Carbide India Limited in 1994 and sold it. There is a company that bought the plant and it is still there operating. Union Carbide exited India and Dow purchased them seven year afterwards.
"So for people to try and associate and bring Dow back into this issue, it is irresponsible.
"I feel bad for that issue personally. It is a terrible issue. But it is not Dow's issue."
And after everything, was it worth becoming a Worldwide Olympic Sponsor up to 2020?
"Even through all of the issues with Bhopal inappropriately being associated to Dow, we never slowed down in our commitment to and contributions to the Games," said Hamilton.
"The Olympics touches people in a way that I don't know any other organisation does. Using sport, to bring the world together, to make the world better. Dow is about using our chemistry and humanity to solve many of the world's problems so we think our objectives and what we stand for connects very, very well. I have now had the chance to see how the Olympic Family works together to make a successful Games and they work collaboratively in a way that I have not really seen in any other organisation. The Games makes a lasting impact both on people and areas. Knowing that we are part of that; it is pretty great."
With just an afternoon at the Dow headquarters, it was a short trip to Midland.
As a journalist, I have reported on this issue and on the protests for some time.
I will continue to do so, so I will stay neutral.
But what I will say following my trip to the state of Michigan is that Dow does make a strong case in its defence; and they do appear to be trying to do some good for the Games.
Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames