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The Right Chemistry

Timberland, Seventh Generation take green chemistry mainstream

<p>Industry heavyweights devise a formula for moving green into the broader economy.</p>

Since 2005, a group of chemical companies, brands, retailers, bio-based startups, government agencies and NGOs have worked to advance green chemistry practices in their organizations and more broadly, in the economy.  

Now 10 organizations from the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3), including Timberland, Valspar and Seventh Generation, will spearhead a one-year collaborative project aimed at bringing green chemistry into the mainstream.  

The development follows the growing awareness of green chemistry, the design, manufacture and application of chemical products that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. Segetis, a small bio-based chemical manufacturer, for example, has introduced a solvent made from waste wood trimmings and corn stalks that is now used to power Seventh Generation and Method cleaning products, delivering performance previously unheard of in green cleaning.

Cargill, meanwhile, won a 2013 Presidential Green Chemistry Award for developing a vegetable oil-based transformer fluid that is much less toxic and flammable, and provides superior performance compared to mineral oil-based fluids, with a lower carbon footprint.

But while such developments show progress, green chemistry still remains a marginal consideration in chemicals research, education and product design, GC3 members concluded at their 2012 annual meeting. With relatively little government support or investment, and few academic programs that teach or research in the field, green chemistry has not achieved the status of clean energy or managed to secure the kinds of longer-term investment we've seen for renewable energy technologies.

Competitive advantage

Green chemistry provides industries with incredible opportunity for growth and competitive advantage, as there is a shortage of safer chemicals that are economically and technically viable. When hazardous substances are removed from materials, processes and products, new markets can be created while costs associated with hazardous material handling, transportation, disposal and compliance are removed.

Bringing green chemistry into the mainstream means making it standard practice throughout the economy so that all chemistry is, by default, green chemistry. From the perspective of a chemical, pharmaceutical or other product manufacturer, the practices outlined below are indicative of green chemistry as standard in a company:

• Green chemistry products and processes are a primary goal of the organization  
• Progress toward green chemistry goals, including greening product lines, is regularly tracked
• Green chemistry design criteria are embedded in product design guidelines and at each stage of product development, so products are designed to be green from the "ground up"
• Green chemistry criteria are included in relevant sourcing protocols, specifications and contracts
• New chemical ingredients are regularly screened for green chemistry attributes
• R & D dollars are devoted to green chemistry innovation
• Products with green chemistry advantages are commercialized over existing chemicals or products (assuming excellent performance)
• Relevant employees are given green chemistry training and green chemistry higher education programs are supported

These performance indicators are adapted from the Green Chemistry Checklist, developed by the Dow Chemical Company, the Ecology Center and other members of the Michigan Green Chemistry Roundtable.

A multi-sector approach

Aside from the 10 organizations leading the effort, the entire group of 80 GC3 members also will be engaged. We know that mainstreaming will require a range of demand and supply-side activities. The project will build on the work of the GC3 project groups, including groups focused on advancing green chemistry in the retail sector, through innovation, in higher education and in supply chains. It will incorporate specific insights from GC3 member companies — chemical feedstock producers, manufacturers, brands and retailers — on how they develop and implement green chemistry, and what has helped or hindered them in the process.

We will look at the enablers that have driven these activities and barriers faced, including customer demand (or lack thereof), finding trained professionals, supply chain issues and government policy. We will look for opportunities for businesses, academic researchers, advocates and government to work together to capitalize on opportunities and overcome barriers. A draft of the report will be presented to GC3 members for their input at the annual GC3 Roundtable in May at 3M's Innovation Center.  The report will serve as a roadmap for firms and other stakeholder organizations to promote green chemistry internally and within government and sector-based initiatives.

As part of the mainstreaming effort, the GC3 also has launched a new project to investigate models of innovation that are either being used or could be used to advance green chemistry. Stay tuned for more on that in our next GreenBiz blog.

Test tube image by fotohunter via Shutterstock.

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