Umicore: the World’s Most Sustainable Company

How sustainable change leads to value creation
Umicore: the World’s Most Sustainable Company
Publ. date 25 Nov 2013
The Canadian research institute Corporate Knights has named Umicore as the world’s most sustainable company. This is quite a feat, as Umicore used to have a rather unpopular image of a polluting company. With revenues of about €12.5 billion (2012), 14,600 employees, 77 industrial sites and 15 R&D centres in 34 countries, there is no doubt that Umicore is doing well. But what is the key to Umicore’s success and how did sustainable change led to value creation?

Umicore’s background

For much of the 20th century, a company known as Union Minière du Haut Katanga exploited the rich mineral resources of Belgium’s colony in the Congo. The company mined copper, tin, cobalt and precious metals, and shipped them to its silver and lead refineries in the Hoboken section of Antwerp, Europe’s second biggest port.

In the eighties Umicore was struggling. The commodity supplier highly depended on products that were rather scarce. There was no doubt that Umicore had to undergo a complete transformation of its business mix in order to survive.

From a traditional mining company to an innovative technology firm

Nowadays Umicore is still mining and refining – but instead of extracting metals from the earth, it recovers them from the discards of the industrial economy: electronic waste, catalytic converters, rechargeable batteries, and residues from copper and zinc smelters. Umicore transformed from a traditional mining company into an innovative technology firm that operates in the areas of metallurgy, chemistry and materials science.

Transforming the business

Together with its stakeholders, Umicore developed a new strategy based on four key materialities: resource scarcity, electrified transportation, clean energy production and storage, and cleaner air. In line with its strategy, Umicore re-structured its business. It now operates four business units: Catalysis, Energy materials, Performance materials and Recycling. “Especially recycling is a very efficient way to produce metals while highlighting the benefits of ‘closing the materials loop’ ”, explains Hugo Morel, executive vice-president of Umicore. “From 50,000 mobile phones – around three tons of material, excluding batteries – Umicore is able to recycle around one kilogram of gold, 10 kilograms of silver, 400 grams of palladium and 420 kilograms of copper. By contrast, extracting one kilogram of gold from a mine below the ground requires the removal of 200 tons of rock.” Last but not least, Umicore transformed its business by investing heavily in research and development in order to develop high-tech environmentally-friendly production processes. The company spent about €157 million on R&D last year, the equivalent of more than 6 per cent of its net revenues.

Value creation from sustainable innovation

In terms of sustainable innovation, Umicore has a substantial advantage over its competitors. Umicore is now global leader in both the recycling of precious and non-ferrous metals from complex waste streams and in the production of engineered materials for rechargeable batteries. Moreover, by focusing on sustainable procurement and engagement with the local community, the company is perceived by its stakeholders as one of the ‘cleanest’ companies in its sector. Marc Grynberg, CEO of Umicore, adds to this: “And now being recognized as the most sustainable company by Corporate Knights is foremost an encouragement to continue to grow our business in a sustainable way. While we still have much work to do, this recognition shows that we are on the right track.”

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