With over 200 years of history in Belgium, Umicore today has risen to be a global player in the department of materials technology. Specializing in the development and application of clean technologies for the sourcing and processing of precious and specialty metals, the company’s ultimate mission is to do so in a sustainable manner, to produce and recycle materials for a better life. How does Umicore aim to complete this mission and become more responsible in the process? 

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Source: Umicore.com

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How can Umicore improve its environmental and social performance?

Umicore's primary focus lies in the production of materials for rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, high-grade solar cells, LED applications, and touch screens. The company also recycles scarce precious metals from batteries and electronic devices, to make circularity a reality for these products. Considering the industry in which the company is active, it comes as no surprise that Umicore faces certain tough dilemmas.

The materials that Umicore uses contribute to important societal topics, such as clean mobility, the energy transition, and people connectivity. However, some of the metals are extracted from mines found in remote areas with specific challenges. For example, areas where nature is unique and fragile, such as the Atacama desert in Chile, or in geopolitically unstable regions, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Umicore’s daunting task is to balance that impact with the good that comes out of the final product. 

We sat down with Guy Ethier, Umicore’s Senior Vice-President for Sustainability, who has forty years of experience in environmental, and health and safety matters. He joined Umicore 20 years ago. We discussed with him how Umicore can tackle the dilemmas it faces and achieve its objectives to improve its environmental and social performance.  

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Cross-functional and cross-sectoral collaboration should be the drivers 

From Guy's perspective, building a sustainable future concerns both people and planet. "Climate-related problems can not be solved by one sector, but only in communality", he says. According to him, companies can supply the capital for innovation, while governments must take care of setting public priorities and creating a level playing field.  At the same time, civil society has to make deliberate choices in favor of sustainable products rather than alternatives with a high carbon footprint.

Nonetheless, only a fundamental desire for cross-functional and cross-sectoral collaboration can drive the entire system.  As a business-to-business company, Umicore is one of the links in the value chain and needs other players for interaction and insights to shape a complete material life cycle.  

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"One can only make a difference with focus and by being good at what you're doing. You have to put your money where your mouth is."

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Guy explains that the production of commodities and base metals used to be one of Umicore's cornerstones. It disposed of these activities, and, since 2001, has transformed itself into a company dedicated to adding value to materials for a sustainable future. “One can only make a difference with focus and by being good at what you're doing. You have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Resource scarcity has become a serious threat to Europe 

Besides being Umicore's SVP Sustainability, Guy is also co-chair of the executive board of the World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance. In this forum, organizations linked to the creation and use of electric-vehicle batteries are represented, such as raw material providers, battery assembly companies, and car manufacturers.  The forum is further complemented by energy companies, organizations responsible for the electric vehicle recharging infrastructure, NGOs, governments, and members of the academic community. 

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BY 2025

Europe and the United States will have 10 million EVs on the roads, compared to 2.5 million today.

 

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To contribute to mobility with a lower CO2-footprint, rechargeable batteries are needed. It is estimated there will be 400 EV models available globally by 2025. By then, Europe and the United States will have 10 million EVs on the roads, compared to 2.5 million today. Due to this huge demand and a lack of raw material sources—which is especially high in Europe and the United States—resource scarcity has become a serious threat. 

While the focus 30 years ago was on business maximization, today we face a mega challenge as we're expected to redesign society as a whole. From Guy's point of view, the fundamental lack of resilience in the industrial sector is a barrier to success. Resilience of resources should be seen as a common good. “The current crisis puts more light on Europe's weak spots, one of which is its dependency on resources from the rest of the world. In reality, Europe can not do as much, as mother nature has put some resources in very specific parts of the world.” 

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Making progress in Europe

Despite the challenge of bringing resources to our continent, there are other ways of bringing change for the greater good. To alter the current status quo, “We should review the total supply chain to see where we can really improve and which obstacles we might have to remove”, the Umicore SVP says. In his view, the Global Battery Alliance can bring together all industries, NGOs, and governments involved in the rechargeable battery supply chain.

He sees three hot spots

  1. The extraction of metals in remote locations often goes hand in hand with the infringement of human rights, degradation of the ecosystem, and difficulties for the local population. In other words, the extraction has a major impact on the mining surroundings, caused by the rest of the world wanting to replace fossil fuels. All processes should be reconsidered, based on their impact on people and the environment. Here and in other parts of the world.
  2. The reduction of our CO2 emissions is a challenge when the overall energy demand remains high. It means that we need to reconsider to what extent we let this demand continue to grow and how can make full use of the available alternatives.
  3. A reduction of the carbon footprint in transportation requires the use of electric cars. However, a true reduction of our industry's total environmental footprint can only be achieved if products' end-of-life is integrated into the process, for example by recycling batteries.

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"The European Green Deal offers real opportunities. Instead of standing up against it, we should embrace it by maximizing the brainpower and minimizing the shortcomings to make the objectives come true."

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According to Guy, the European Union faces a tipping point in its climate agenda as the EU Green Deal offers real opportunities. Europe will have to take on a pro-active role to keep its leading position in innovative technology areas and keep pace with other world players in terms of economic development. Guy Ethier: “Instead of standing up against the Green Deal, we should embrace it by maximizing the brainpower and minimizing the shortcomings to make the objectives come true.”  

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How can businesses in the resources industry become truly purpose-driven?

Purpose-driven business is a radical realignment, a new outlook on the way we create value. The opportunities for sustainable growth and change are huge - and nowhere more so than in the resources industry. Our choices about which opportunities we pursue today will shape our future.

read more

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Recycling is key but comes with many challenges 

Umicore can play an important part in such a new policy, because of its in-depth knowledge of precious metals. The Hoboken site in Belgium is specialized in refining and recycling precious metals, which is the largest precious metal recycling sites in the world.

For electronic equipment, however, recycling is still a struggle because of collection issues. Of the two billion mobile phones and tablets that have been sold worldwide in 2017, only 10 percent were collected. Such small devices are considered to have intrinsic value and are typically forgotten in our drawers at home.

For car batteries, the development of collection for recycling is more advanced, but Guy points out that most electric cars have not reached their end of life yet. He also points to the potential risk that used cars are exported to other regions where collection and recycling are less developed.  

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ONLY 10% OUT OF  2 BILLION

mobile phones and tablets that were sold worldwide in 2017 were collected.

 

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Umicore as a company that focuses on sustainability

Guy Ethier: “Transforming is a matter of asking yourself continuously: ‘What are we good at and what makes it happen?’ and reviewing what you did today. Adding value to the world should be the driving force to refocus people’s minds.” He observes that tremendous change can not be made within a short time, because transposing the fundamentals of an organization requires leadership and cooperation among the company's teams.

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"Transforming is a matter of asking yourself continuously: 'What are we good at and what makes it happen?' and reviewing what you did today. Adding value to the world should be the driving force to refocus people’s minds."

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Because of Umicore’s transformation over the past twenty years, the company has not experienced any difficulties in attracting young talent. The company's refocus on sustainability has changed its reputation from that of a heavy polluter to that of an innovative technology company that has much to offer. 

Umicore's Senior Vice President Sustainability hopes that in the present pandemic-dominated business climate, governments and civil society will focus even more on people and planet. “The crisis has created a desire for investment in a sustainable future and governments have an important role to facilitate this. If this opportunity is missed now, it will take a long time before we get a new one.”  

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Source: Umicore.com

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When it comes to sustainability, Guy thinks that a part of the world will refer to the time before and after Covid-19. “It is a systemic disturbance and nobody on earth knows what it will mean for the future. I assume it will mean a strong turn in setting priorities for material availability.”  

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"Sustainability can only be achieved by engaging each other in a way that benefits all."

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As part of his legacy, Guy Ethier aims to contribute to the collaboration of players in the value chain, reach one common and sustainable goal, without boundaries. “Sustainability can only be achieved by engaging each other in a way that benefits all.” He refers to the British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who has written that businesses can only continue to exist if they work together on sustainability challenges in a pre-competitive manner to tackle systemic problems. Let's hope his goal can be achieved in the near future.

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Do you want to know how to embed true purpose throughout your organization? Feel free to reach out to us! 

Femke de Jager

Managing Director – Industry X.O, Europe Asset Performance Management lead


Ruben de Pauw

Management Consultant – Accenture Strategy & Consulting

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