Why green chemistry is a major driver of product innovation

Editor's note: This is a monthly column written by Method, the San Francisco-based company that develops green home cleaning products with a nod towards design. Look for it on the fourth Thursday of each month exclusively on GreenBiz.com. Contributors will include Adam Lowry and Eric Ryan, the founders of Method, along with Drummond Lawson, the company's green giant (aka sustainability director), who wrote this piece.

What would chemicals look like if they were designed in the same way as products or buildings? Could better-designed, greener chemistry help address the health and environmental concerns facing both product developers and companies?

Consider how the chemicals industry was established. Chemists didn’t develop novel materials by imagining awesome, new molecules and then find ways to synthesize them. Instead, many legacy chemicals came into being because they (or their precursors) were waste products from other processes that someone found a use for. Gasoline, for example, was initially a useless waste product of the kerosene refining industry. Cue some enterprising chemists and engineers, and this waste liquid became the basis of an entire industry.

This opportunistic approach to chemical development shows many impressive examples of resourcefulness. But it has also resulted in legions of materials not ideally suited to their applications. Toxicology, environmental compatibility and other materials assessment factors haven’t historically figured into the adoption or approval of new chemistries. The impact of exposure to chemicals that accumulate in people and the environment, disrupt hormonal function, are toxic to environmental systems and deplete limited resources have been well documented by numerous researchers such as Theo Colborn in the landmark book Our Stolen Future.

Imagine if the built environment had evolved in the same way. Instead of buildings and spaces designed and constructed for specific purposes, we’d instead be living and working in whatever shelter resulted from existing activities, without regards to their structural safety or suitability for habitation.

Sound ludicrous? It’s largely how the chemicals industry has evolved.

Photo of plants in test tube provided by fotohunter via Shutterstock

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