Harnessing Science and Technology for a Positive Impact with Gayle Schueller of 3M

April 2, 2024

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Dr. Gayle Schueller is 3M’s Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer. Gayle started in 3M’s corporate laboratory as a product development engineer and has over 30 years of technical and business leadership experience.  Her career spans a broad range of businesses from electronics to healthcare to consumer industries. She has led technical and business teams from around the world including Europe, Asia, Latin America and North America.

John Shegerian: Do you have a suggestion for a Rockstar Impact Podcast guest? Go to ImpactPodcast.com and just click “Be a Guest” to recommend someone today. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com. This episode of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts, and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop partners, please go to www.closedloopparteners.com.

John: Welcome to another edition, a New Year’s edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian and I’m so honored to have with us today, Gayle Schueller. She’s the Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer of 3M. Welcome Gayle to the Impact Podcast.

Gayle Schueller: Thanks John, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

John: Gayle, before we talk about all the important and impactful things in sustainability that you and your colleagues are doing at 3M, can you share a little bit about your background, where you grew up and how you got on this very important journey that you’re on?

Gayle: Well, thanks. When I grew up in Upstate New York, just south of Rochester, my parents were both school teachers and there was not such a thing as a chief sustainability officer job. I didn’t know that was a thing. My dad taught high school chemistry and wanted me to go to chemistry or chemical engineering. So a little bit of a rebel. I decided to go into physics. I studied physics and I got my PhD in material science. After earning that, I came to 3M straight away.There’s lots of different ways you can contribute and I’m a big fan of contributing through science, through cold hard facts, figure out what you really know, and then how do you deliver it.

But I was always focused on what’s the meaning, what’s the impact of what I do through science. I did some work in nuclear physics and I’m wow, I’m going to develop a new radioactive decay scheme or help understand it better. But that didn’t feel like that was going to impact people’s lives. I got excited when I worked on Post-it notes or some of the medical products that 3M has developed. But really, when I came into, thank you, I’m always going to see Post-it notes. Same, Canary Yellow, very nice. But when our previous CEO asked me to get into the sustainability space. I didn’t even know what he was thinking or what he was talking about because there really wasn’t that going on.

Now I’ve learned, you know, just the impact that we can have. We align at 3M around the United Nations SDGs. We’re thinking of a full space across 17 of them from environmental to social to collaborating between entities. I think it’s a really exciting space to work in. In contrast to being a research scientist, this is something you can collaborate with other companies on. You talk about some of the other sustainability leaders you talk with from different companies, and I know so many of them. It’s really fun to work together.

John: It is one of the coolest fraternities in the world, isn’t it right now?

Gayle: I think so. Yeah.

John: I’m with you. You joined 3M right out of school. How long ago were you asked to pivot into the sustainability space at 3M?

Gayle: Wow, I started in corporate labs and I worked on in our electronics business and then worked in our healthcare business. Then I worked with the consumer business and the Post-it notes. It wasn’t until I had kind of built what I thought was the first, maybe more than half of my career before I was asked to look into sustainability. When they were looking for the role, they wanted to make sure somebody who had worked in lots of different parts of the business, lots of different business models understood the technology, understood and had a passion, but not too much, for going after the environmental and social sides of things, and someone to work on communication. I was pretty far into my career. I had done a lot of different things, and I found that to be really useful in the role, I can talk with colleagues that I’ve been working with for over a decade in Japan or China or Brazil, and it’s really helpful to have that kind of network.

John: You were named chief sustainability officer. Was there one prior to you or you were the first?

Gayle: I would say that I was really the first when it comes down to it. I was the first person that they asked to come in and step into, think about sustainability as a business differentiator, not just environmental compliance. I was asked to look at what the business models can be, how can you bring these forward, and then work with all the different stakeholders across the company. It’s come a long way in the last 10-plus years since I’ve been in this space and it’s really an exciting time.

John: Talk a little bit about that though. That’s always fascinating. When I talk to folks that have that role of chief sustainability officer, some have stepped into other people’s shoes, some very big shadows and some big shoes, but some have that proverbial blank page in front of them. How do you know where to even start when you are named chief sustainability officer and the first at an amazing and iconic brand like 3M, how daunting is that or how exciting is that or what kind of mixture of daunting and exciting is it?

Gayle: We had a very senior leader at the company who said that every day you come to work, you should be both scared and excited. I assure you, those first days coming into the sustainability space applied. There’s a number of different ways you can do it. I would say that I’ve done trial and error on it and we’ve reinvented the company a few different times. I’ve been in and out of the sustainability space. I’ll share a conglomeration of things that I’ve learned. One way you want to always know what your data is.

You want to know where the heavy footprint is, where the where the customers are asking for it most, where the regulations are getting strongest. You want to be grounded in fact, at the same time, there’s a really important emotional connection in this space. I actually think that’s the overriding factor is you want to align with businesses or business leaders when they’re motivated to do this. Now, some of them are obvious. One of the first groups I worked with was the head of our automotive division. He wasn’t quite sure what sustainability was the first time we talked.

He figured out that if it was about making his vehicles have better fuel economy or larger battery range or make them safer that those were all the things that he wanted to do for his business and he ended up being a great advocate and he was a great partner. There were other folks like our health information systems. This is about software that helps medical professionals be more efficient with their work and reduce the number of files and help make things be easier because they can communicate more verbally in voice recognition.

Those groups weren’t sure so much that sustainability was important at first, but they came along later. So I think that there’s a place and a time when the technology and the examples come forward. When you go to where the heat is, we’ve had some businesses that the leader is so passionate about the space and they aren’t the obvious one to get started with. But once you get them started and you show that they’re a hero in that space and then others start to look at it, then it can be really fun. There is a good pace for some internal competition between businesses and it’s fun to see what a business says. Second, they can really reinvent that tape. I can reinvent my tape, and of course, you can so it’s kind of fun.

John: Gayle, before we get going into more specifics about what you do at 3M as a chief sustainability officer, 3M is more than post-it notes, it’s people. Can you explain to our listeners and viewers who are not familiar with the size of 3M in terms of approximately how many people and how many countries do you have offices and how many people around the world does 3M have?

Gayle: Wow, we have over 90,000 people around the world. We have 70 countries where we have significant brick-and-mortar footprints. There’s many of us who in the pandemic shifted to working remote, and so there’s 200 countries where we sell our product approximately and we sell a variety of different products. I mentioned automotive, you mentioned post-it notes, command strips are another personal favorite. Scotch-Brite scouring. Most people know us through our consumer businesses, but as I mentioned already, we have an automotive business, we have a healthcare business, we have a significant business that goes into electronics, devices. A lot of those areas where materials really differentiate the capabilities.

Just working as we are today on a video meeting, the electricity and the flow and the clean signal that we’re getting, the brightness of the image on the device, those are things that 3M helps contribute to in addition to making sandpaper and adhesives that hold glass onto buildings and all things like that. It’s really diverse and it’s fun to work in a company that’s been around since the auto industry started, around since the electronics industry started and works to merge those together along with construction and building and health care and consumer products.

John: For all listeners and viewers who’ve just joined us, we’ve got Gayle Schueller with us today. She’s a senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at 3M. To find Gayle and her 90,000 or so colleagues around the world, you could go to 3m.com. You will learn more about sustainability as 3m.com Batchlist Sustainability. Gayle, you just came back from COP 28 in Dubai. Tell us a little bit about what went on there, your experience and what was your goal going in and what did you come out with coming out for in terms of usable information for 3M’s benefit.

Gayle: Thanks. I’ve been going to COPs, I’ve been to several now, and each one has a different place in time. I remember the days when you’d go and there was still whole groups that were questioning whether climate change was real, whether humans caused it or then if there was anything we can do about it. I’m pleased to say that as of Dubai, as of COP 28, those kinds of questions have been left in the wayside. The last couple, few COPs, we really shifted into moving into this conversation of how do we take action? How do we collaborate? How do we best make a difference? This was definitely one of those examples.

We’ve actually moved a fair amount because I recall not that long ago, there was a question of, “can we really make renewable energy work?”. Well, and now the whole countries are doing this. They’re going for days and weeks at a time of being 100% of the electricity coming from renewable sources. We’re still talking about the how of how do we make it from one season to the next, but that’s an entirely different conversation. Similarly, in the past, when I would show up as a sustainability leader from 3M at COP, I would get questions about, well, “why are you here?”. We know that it’s about governments and it’s about NGOs and activists. Why are corporations here? That’s done as well.

Now there’s more companies than ever coming to COP. There’s a recognition that it has to be done across sectors. Yes, the government’s making regulations, yes, activists and civil society, making sure that their voice is heard, but the companies arguably can make faster, bigger, more impactful decisions and actions in many, many ways. That innovation that comes when you bring together people who have a common purpose is super exciting. This is an interesting COP, is the global stock take? So there was a global stock take around how far we’ve progressed since the Paris Accord. Are we or are we not on the path to the 1.5 degrees C or the 2 degrees C? There’s a lot of real concerns about the ability to do that.

I’ll tell you that one of the things that I noticed as I was digging into the data is that in general, people are assuming that there would be a linear progress. In my experience as a scientist, very rarely do things follow a linear progression. They tend to have you have those first movers in their early signals of change. There’s a point where things really move rapidly in transition and then that last bit is really tough to get to. So it’s more of an S-curve of a technology adoption. I would say that at this COP, it became clear that that electricity piece, the renewable electricity, that is well up the S-curve. Again, it may depend on where you are geographically.

The electric vehicle transition, again, well up the S-curve. We’re seeing more and more signals about a lot of the other pieces, but I would say earlier on in that case.There’s a lot of justifiable concern when you’re only seeing those early signals. But I think it’s just like we talked about before about let’s go to where the heat is, let’s go to where things are really happening, work with those, bring that up, and then build and build from there. The global stock takes said we are not on track. But I think when you start to see the signals and you look at where we’ve been and how we’ve come in the collaboration and momentum that’s building, I’m a little more optimistic than that. I think there’s also a global stock take on the UN Global Compact has the 17 sustainable development goals.

Similarly, whether it’s about carbon or about nature-based types of concerns, we’re not on track for those either, but this is how we do it. I think by convening, by the sharing of the ideas, by the making goals clear, that’s a really important piece. And who would have thought that a COP that was based United Arab Emirates, one of the largest oil and gas producing entities in the world we would get at least the first time ever a cross-country commitment that we are transitioning away from fossil fuels. We didn’t get all the way to phase out, but we got agreement between countries that we are on a path, we must transition away from fossil fuels. That’s a pretty important milestone, particularly when we don’t know how to do it completely.

John: Agreed. I so agree with you that it wouldn’t be half as worth it to have those kinds of conferences unless all the stakeholders are at the table. This is not just for big government, little government, NGOs, and activists. This is absolutely the corporations like 3M and other large and iconic corporations have to have a seat at the table.

All stakeholders have to be there because if we’re talking about inclusiveness and diversity when we’re talking about making better cultures and societies and corporations and organizations. The same goes for meetings like that. You come out with better solutions with everybody’s voice at the table so I fullheartedly agree with you. Obviously, there’s so much coming at you on a regular basis with 90,000 employees and doing business and doing commercial business in over 200 countries, you must be inundated with both issues, opportunities, mini-crisis, little fires, big fires on a regular basis.

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How do you outline a plan ahead for every year so at least when you look back, you feel like you’ve made progress, that 3M is making progress in this what they’re now calling in many ways a transition period? We’re going through a transition in terms of moving from a linear to a circular economy and from a carbon-positive situation to where we’re going to hopefully net neutral or one-day net negative in terms of carbon. How do you feel progress can be made and how do you lay out goals every year that you feel are stretches but also attainable?

Gayle: It’s definitely a team sport. One of the things that we brought forward is this idea that sustainability is part of everyone’s job. Whether you have a role like you and I have where we bring a lot of voice to the subject, or you have a role that’s on a manufacturing line where you can help make the product more efficient or reduce waste or things like that, or every role in the company has an opportunity. We try to make it something that all 90,000 employees can be thinking about in a common framework.

Because especially when you’re thinking about the 60,000-ish products that we offer, the way one helps, the way one differentiates versus another’s can be different because of the markets that they play in or the maturity of the product. We have a strategic framework that we think about for sustainability and it’s built on that foundation of science. Overall we’re trying to make a positive impact in the world through science. We think of three different pillars so it’s science for circular, and this is about advancing the global circular economy.

This is where you see people increasing our recycling efforts, but bringing recycled content into the products that we make or improving the efficiency of a manufacturing process, helping to improve water quality or reduce the water usage that we use. Those things are in our science for circular pillar. Science for climate, again, another C, these are going to end up being in alphabetical order. So science for climate, that’s what the COP conference is about, this is about how we reduce carbon emissions, how we do it in our own operations, how we help our customers through our products, how we do it as we’re engaging in logistics with the transportation of our products, raw materials to us, of our products downstream, and then how we work with communities about reducing carbon footprint.

Because finally that third pillar, we’ve got science for circular, science for climate, science for community, it’s ultimately all about people. Even when we’re talking about the climate transition, we want equitable transition. We want a transition where people in the world are doing well and where 3M is having a positive impact on the circular economy, on climate, and on communities. We have a lot of work going on in all of those spaces. I think every employee across the company can see where their role fits. We’ve tried to make it simple for people to remember circular, climate, and community. That’s part of how we bring people along.

John: When I was doing some pre-read about what you do, I read about the SVC, the sustainability value commitment. Explain how what you just explained then rolls up into the SVC.

Gayle: 3M is well known for our products. We’ve been talking about quite a few of them so far. We’ve, we instated a few years ago, we actually announced it at a pop-out in Katowice, Poland in 2018 that every new product we launch would have a sustainability value commitment. Now we have a lot of metrics that you can track. We’re very science-based so that value commitment could be because it’s increased its recycled content or it helps our customers reduce their carbon footprint. It could be any number of things. We intentionally set it up.

While we provide lots of details about different ways you can do it, it’s all about innovation and it’s about creativity. It’s not understanding your marketplace so that your sustainability value commitment is most relevant for that market, for that product, for that customer. An example that’s maybe an unexpected one that I like to talk about sometimes is, we have roofing granules. Not a business most people know about for 3M and not maybe our sexiest of businesses. But back in the 1940s, 3M got into a business where the shingles that you see on a typical American roof these days actually has particles on it and you can pick the color of your particles, how they reflect versus the light, and you want them to be reliable, and you wanted them to protect your home.

They’ve been doing that for a long time. Our scientists in that group, you know, kind of felt like, what else is there to invent in the world of roofing granules? But when they went to conferences, they learned people really didn’t talk much about the roofing granules, but what they did talk about was urban heat island and smog in the air. What they realized is that through 52 different technology platforms that we combine and mix and match in different ways. A few different ones, if you mix and match them in terms of how particles interact and how we do coatings, they realized that we could adapt our roofing granules to now pull smog out of the air or reflect the urban heat effects, so we’re able to help have roofing granules that pull smog out of the air. It’s non-trivial.

It’s the equivalent for typical American homes, the equivalent of two large full-sized trees. This is actually a really pretty significant change that you can make without having your home look any different. It’s transparent with our customers who actually put the shingles together. It’s an example of something that you might not think of if you were just looking for recycled content or looking at reducing your carbon footprint in manufacturing. We like people to think big and approach things in different ways.

John: I remember those particles because I remember going on the roof from the house I grew up in in Queens, New York, and besides pulling smog out, is there more of a push now to make those particles lighter and lighter to help better reflect the sun? So therefore the heat gain will be less in areas of the country that have a lot of sun?

Gayle: Yeah, so that’s that reduction of the urban heat. I thought you were reflective and super reflective. I mentioned coatings is a technology platform, optical is a technology platform, so literally, and your cell phone, part of the, or even the screens that we’re looking at on our laptop. Part of what makes that brighter is the way we reflect the light. They combine that coding technology with understanding of the optics, even the IR optics in that case to help with the heat reflection. Those ripping granules are a lot more high-tech than you might think and they’re a lot more high-tech than, dare I say, when you were growing up in Greece.

John: Oh, for sure they are. You’ve been now in this role about 10 years or so, Gayle. Now, every year do you create a sustainability or impact report or something like that, that that’s published?

Gayle: We do, we publish our global impact report on an annual basis. 3M has been publishing one, not me personally, but since 1990. We put out the data on different things. I’m proud of that. It’s a long time. It’s a commitment to being transparent. It’s a commitment to understanding the science and working with others to, hey, if you can help us do this better, we want to know how. It’s evolved a lot. Now it’s colorful and tries to really be engaging. Yes, for the environmental scientists that want to understand the depth of the data, but also for prospective employees. Over the last few years, we’ve made it more of an online type of content and we’ve shifted to publishing it earlier so we’re in the final stages of review right now, because we’re going to be publishing in March to do it in conjunction with our financial reporting from the 2023.

John: That’s great. So when it comes out in March of every year, then it lives at 3m.com backslash sustainability space online.

Gayle: It does. You can find it from our investor site as well. Global impact report.

John: That’s really great. If I were to ask you now, we just now started 2024. What was your biggest win last year, project or initiative that was to you the biggest win for 3M and for the planet at large? What are you most proud of from just last year, 2023?

Gayle: I am very proud of the progress that we’ve made against our goals. We have reduced our carbon footprint substantially. What I’m also proud of and that’s what you’re going to see in the report. You’ll see results and you’ll see one environmental metric after another. We’ve not only delivered on our goals, but in many cases exceeded that. We’re well beyond our 50% renewable electricity goal as one example. We surpassed that goal last year. What’s also super exciting that those of us who work together get to know about the progress that we’re making underneath the hood, if you will. We know that our customers are wanting more, they want to understand the carbon footprint of what the products are that they get from us.

Another area of those technology platforms are in our data science area. We’re really starting to find new ways to mine that information, to get more accurate data, to get it more timely and to really help better work with our customers to meet their needs so that they can make more informed decisions. There’s a lot of better understanding that we’re working on about our carbon footprint. Every big public goal that we put out, we need to have a math with a path to get there. We’re really excited in 2023, we really cracked the nut on some new pieces that are going to allow us in 2024 to make some bigger commitments. I’m really excited about that, but that’s still a work in progress, so we’ll have to talk again.

Another one would be on water. A lot of progress on the inner workings of things related to carbon, but also related to water. Because of the diversity of our global footprint and the types of businesses we’re in. We have to look really big when we think about who do we partner with. So we decided to partner with the UN’s water arm, the Water Resilience Coalition. We’ve been working with them on this concept of a net positive water impact. It’s much like the carbon footprint. Today we understand what carbon footprint is, but you know what, about 20 or 30 years ago, people didn’t. That was a whole new concept. That’s where we are today with water. What does it mean to be net positive from a carbon perspective?

We know what that means. We’ve been talking about it. What does it mean to be net positive from a water perspective? It’s a whole open discussion right now. We began last year, we started a couple of years ago with the Water Resilience Coalition. But we began last year convening groups, whether it was as part of World Water Week in Stockholm, we met in 3M facilities for that. We also met in November, convening folks who were from NGOs and governments and corporations. How do we approach what it means to be net positive water impact? What data do we use? How do we make sure that that data is really robust and that it can be maintained and compared across companies? How do we know that we’re making progress?

We’re doing a lot of really exciting work in that area. I can’t help but feel that both this carbon work and the water work, it’s behind the scenes right now. It’s in that early formative stage. But there’s a lot going on and I’m very excited about both what we’ve done in 2023, but what that means for what we’re going to do in 2024 and beyond.

John: Obviously, Gayle, you’re a scientist and a brilliant one at that and I love the message of hope that you have and the things that have you excited. What bothers you the most or keeps you up at night, not only with regards to just 3M, because you have tremendous visibility, you get to travel a lot and meet a lot of great people and have a really neat fraternity of CSOs not only in the United States but around the world. What’s on your mind as a scientist from what you’ve learned and heard over the last couple of years that worries you the most?

Gayle: I worry that we’re not moving fast enough. There’s a lot of things that we know how to do this and a lot of them, it’s not a matter of dollars and cents. It’s a matter of inertia. I talked about the global stock take, and we had a lot of discussions about the carbon footprint and were we on track. Were we seeing progress? Yes. How do we make it go faster? We talked about the UN SDGs and the broad range of environmental and social pieces. But I also had the opportunity at COP and at other events to talk with peers from corporations and governments and others about how are we doing and how we approach sustainability compared to, back in the time prime from Paris. I think we have some real opportunities here to help us move faster. I think a lot of that goes back to engaging people.

Now, we talk about the idea of a just transition. That’s critically important that we’re engaging all the people. I think that path to get there is something that we haven’t tapped into as well as we could and that’s getting to the hearts and souls and minds of people, because I think there’s… I will admit, I’m guilty of this. I’m a scientist. I often go to numbers and say let’s look at this chart. We can see that we’re on track in this area, not in track in this area. This technology is clearly proving itself. We need to all shift over to it.

But sometimes it’s not just about the numbers and I think that storytelling piece, that engaging people, that piece is critical. Especially when we talk about behavioral changes and really having society clamoring for things, asking governments for things. Most of our government leaders aren’t scientists. How do we help bring this along so that it’s, dare I say less scary, but it’s something that people aspire to, something that people want to do as a transition. I think we’ve seen that with electric vehicles. Honestly, 10 years ago, people really questioned, would you want to drive an electric vehicle? But now I think it’s becoming clear that that’s a very aspirational thing to do.

People want to do that in so many ways. There’s obviously a business opportunity with it and we’re seeing that come forward more and more as well. I think there’s an opportunity to bring it forward faster. The key maybe not so much doubling down on the same techniques we’ve always used, but bring it forward in that more emotionally connected way and catching people in their aspirational pieces, their hearts, not just their minds.

John: I think you’re so right and I love what you’re saying. Gayle, you’re on quite a journey at 3M and the work you’re doing is unbelievably inspiring. I want you to come back on the show and continue sharing the journey in the years ahead. I just want our listeners and viewers who want to find all the great and inspiring work you’re doing there at 3M to go to your website, 3m.com and then look at your impact reports, backslash sustainability. Gayle Schueller, thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you for all the important work you and your colleagues are doing at 3M. Again, thank you for making the world a better place.

Gayle: Thank you so much, John. It’s a collaborative effort for sure.

John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go to Spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, live streams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy, and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.

Every new 3M product must have a Sustainability Value Commitment (SVC) that demonstrates how the product drives impact for the greater good. By embedding sustainability into our innovation process. Examples of 3M product SVCs include: Automotive Electrification technologies that power lighter, more durable, energy-efficient connected vehicles; Smog-reducing Roofing Granules that help to improve air quality by transforming pollution into water-soluble ions that safely wash away with rain; and Scotch™ Cushion Lock™ Protective Wrap, an alternative to plastic cushion wrap that made from 100% recycled paper and recyclable after use.