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A New, More Sustainable Responsible Care Process: What Chemical Processors Need to Know

Aug. 23, 2023
Updates to the Responsible Care initiative emphasize process and progress over meeting minimum thresholds.

The International Council of Chemical Associations (ICCA) introduced the Responsible Care (RC) initiative in 1985 to support the industry’s continuous improvement efforts around safety management. This global commitment encouraged chemical organizations to embrace a worldwide charter designed to foster safe chemicals management and excellence in environmental, health, safety and security performance.

It did for a time, but much has changed since then.

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in an era of near-unprecedented change across the chemical industry, with social distancing regulations and increasing digitalization leading to periodic shutdowns, supply chain interruptions, growing operational risk and other disruptions to the status quo. Then, a spate of intensifying natural disasters driven by ongoing climate change further highlighted these issues.

ICCA and its associated regional organizations responded to these challenges by codifying new requirements to help better prepare for similar issues in the future.

Addressing Challenges With Bold Action

One of the most prominent changes today’s chemical businesses face is the codification of previously optional sustainability metrics into the global framework. These provisions—outlined by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) in 2020—will now be mandatory for participating organizations in the U.S. and worldwide. The change stems from the growing importance of sustainability in the eyes of international regulators, the scientific community and consumers.

With all eyes on the environment, the new guidance compels organizations hoping to maintain their Responsible Care Management System (RCMS) and/or Responsible Care 14001 (RC14001) status to reimagine their environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives as more holistic endeavors to address the root causes of facilities’ impacts on ecosystems. Traditionally, sustainability guidance within the RC framework focused on carbon emissions, pollutants and water usage, but the updates will ask operators to consider the entirety of their supply chains—including downstream sustainability, procurement and planning—when monitoring and reporting on environmental performance.

The updated RC framework also reflects ICCA’s interest in firming up cybersecurity for chemical processors, likely motivated by the series of high-profile attacks targeting operators over the past few years. The new RC acknowledges the advantages of connectivity many operators enjoyed during the pandemic years, integrating remote-auditing technologies into the framework while also stressing the importance of timely, effective cyber response as part of the security code.

ICCA also codifies other pandemic-era adjustments in the latest version of the RC, focusing on processes that supported resilience within the industry throughout the height of the pandemic, like extended certification periods and more flexible remediation protocols. Overall, these changes make the process more outcome-oriented, focusing on demonstrable engagement over passive compliance.

Next Steps for Operators

In practice, the primary result will be a renewed emphasis on process and progress over meeting minimum thresholds. To best prepare their business, operations managers should take action immediately. They can start the process by:

1. Researching the requirements for each certification they seek. Although RC seeks to standardize chemical-industry regulations across borders, requirements in different regions still vary. It’s important that managers develop an understanding of relevant guidance and ensure that all their facilities meet the requirements of the most stringent region in which they operate.

Similarly, companies that have made recent acquisitions or merged with other organizations may need to re-evaluate their programs to make sure that the joining of the entities doesn’t void existing certifications.

2. Developing an implementation strategy with reasonable timelines. Evaluation and certification processes often take longer than operators expect. For organizations that don’t find any issues in their initial evaluations, the process usually takes about two months. For those that need to remediate concerns before proceeding, the process may take up to 120 days.

3. Attaining leadership buy-in and employee support. The next step is translating the findings of the above into language that leadership and staff understand to ensure they’re not only on board but also actively engaged in the process. Stressing the importance of sustainability and ESG to corporate reputations in today’s landscape and the way these changes can help mitigate risk may help contextualize the benefits within the business at large.

These three steps will help ensure that chemical processors are ready to hit the ground running when it’s time for their next audit. However, it will not be the end of the road for RC certifications. The new RC’s increased flexibility and focus on progress over perfection are designed to ensure that dedication to proactive response and ongoing progress is the defining feature of certified entities.

The businesses that succeed in the new era of RC will be those that understand that the program is no longer about checking off boxes on a list but rather about showing a commitment to action. Managers pursuing certification must not only get ahead of these changes but prepare for continued evaluation, adjustment and action. Those that do are likely to be rewarded with safer facilities, more effective sustainability programs, goodwill from the public and more resilient operations.

About the Author

Cy Sharp, global certification manager, ABS Quality Evaluations | Global Certification Manager, ABS Quality Evaluations

Cy X. Sharp is the global certification manager for ABS Quality Evaluations and is responsible for overseeing all certification programs related to quality, environmental, occupational health and safety, medical, security and asset integrity schemes. In addition, he’s responsible for competency management of all related auditors within the sustainability program. Sharp has over 34 years of applied experience in the development and implementation of effective performance and evidence-based management system programs.

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