Companies need to move towards using greener chemicals because the principal drivers demanding such change -- science, regulation, and B2B environmentally preferable purchasing programs -- are surging and will intensify.
Product toxicity reduction should be a core element of business strategy because it can reduce reputational and litigation liabilities, help companies avoid "toxic lockout" of their products from the marketplace, and drive innovation.
It can drive sales in the marketplace for environmentally preferable products, lower overhead costs when products subject to government hazardous waste laws are eliminated, and contribute to enhanced employee safety and productivity. Toxicity reduction and elimination can also yield other forms of cost savings, generally determined on a case by case basis.
In the course of this three-part series, we aim to help you figure out how to reduce your company's toxic footprint by reducing and eliminating the "worst of the worst" toxic chemicals and promoting use of "best of the best" green ones.
Part one is focused on corporate commitment; part two explores gathering and measuring data on toxics use, and part three looks at how companies disclose their toxics footprint and engage in shaping public policy on the issue. For background and details about the benchmark referred to throughout this series, please read "An Updated Benchmark for Corporate Green Chemistry Practices."
The principles of "green chemistry" should inform and drive substitution programs. As summarized by Clean Production Action: "The goal of green chemistry is to create better, safer chemicals while choosing the safest, most efficient ways to synthesize them and to reduce wastes." The set of twelve principles includes such ideas as:
• preventing waste is better than cleaning it up afterwards;
• design chemicals explicitly to minimize toxicity to human health and the environment;
• minimize energy use
• use renewable rather than depleting feedstocks
• use safer solvents and minimize the potential for accidents
• design chemicals to degrade after use.
SC Johnson [PDF] stands out for having made its Greenlist process of toxicity reduction a core part of its corporate strategy. While this reflects the strong social ethic of the Johnson family, significant commitments to toxicity reduction have also been made by publicly owned companies.
For example, Nike has been working on toxicity reduction since the 1990s and in 2004 declared a corporate-wide goal of "proactively targeting, removing, or replacing chemicals that, while not legislated as illegal, fit the scientific definition of toxic." Nike's "Considered Chemistry" program of shifting to less toxic materials is profiled here.
Kaiser Permanente's "Comprehensive Chemicals Policy" [.doc link] adopts a precautionary approach to chemicals -- recognizing that action should be taken even in the face of scientific uncertainty -- and lays out the corporate practices that flow from that, including identifying high priority chemicals for action, working through its procurement process to secure safer alternatives, and developing goals and metrics to measure progress and mechanisms for sharing successes and lessons with the public.
Kaiser-Permanente aired some of these experiences and lessons in February 2009 testimony [PDF] before a congressional committee examining federal regulation of toxic chemicals.
More commonly, however, companies' safer substitution commitments are not presented in stand-alone statements, but are captured in the tools companies adopt that have explicit substitution elements.
For example, Steelcase [PDF] has been pursuing "cradle to cradle" certification for its product portfolio for many years. "Cradle to cradle" incorporates toxicity reduction criteria, moving products towards increased use of safer chemicals and away from hazardous ones and designing products that can be reclaimed and reused.
Steelcase competitor Herman Miller likewise has been deploying "cradle to cradle" design principles in its "design for environment" (DfE) protocol, described in detail on the MBDC website. The company set a challenge goal of deriving 50 percent of its 2010 sales from products that satisfied its DfE protocol, including no use of highly hazardous chemicals and no use of PVC.