A Game Plan for Accelerating Green Chemistry

A Game Plan for Accelerating Green Chemistry

[Editor’s note: Part 1 of this four-part series offered a 2030 green chemistry vision for the U.S. Today, Part 2 lays out a game plan for realizing the vision, focusing on sectoral and geographic approaches, sharing innovations and changes in corporate management structure.]

The game plan for realizing the vision requires a collaborative, multi-pronged investment, policy, and education push, built on both separate public and private sector initiatives and public/private partnerships.

These can be organized sectorally, aggregating downstream user needs, mobilizing  and aligning pools of capital (e.g., cleantech venture capital, joint venture investments, government grants and procurement incentives, and mission-related investments by philanthropic foundations), and using these to foster chemical innovation by start-up companies and academia and to encourage appropriate changes at existing well-capitalized companies.

{related_content}Sectoral initiatives can include, for example, cosmetics and personal care products, home and institutional cleaning products, apparel, dyes and coatings, automotive, electronics, health care, construction, pharmaceuticals, schools, packaging and agriculture. One such sectoral model is provided by the Pharmaceutical Roundtable, described in more detail here, through which pharmaceutical companies pool resources to fund research on less hazardous and wasteful manufacturing processes. A similar formulators roundtable has been established for companies involved in formulating cleaning and personal care products.

The national green chemistry push will also need a “green chemical commons” where new developments are shared, just as food processors share breakthroughs in food safety methods. The commons should be structured to foster not only free sharing, but also to accommodate the financial benefits and competitive advantages that individual companies gain from chemical innovations.

Green Xchange
is a possible model. Green XChange, an Internet-based marketplace to share intellectual property, was unveiled at the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The system allows those contributing intellectual property to decide what licensing approach to take. Nike is sharing more than 400 of its patents, such as its environmentally-preferred rubber that contains 96 percent fewer toxicants than the company’s original rubber formulation.

Even while seeking sectoral and cross-sectoral collaborations, companies must get their own houses in order to accomplish green chemistry objectives.

For example, Pfizer has been a green chemistry pioneer among pharmaceutical companies. The company has recognized the importance of thoroughly integrating green chemistry concerns throughout its management structure, from research to scale-up through to manufacturing. Pfizer has a full-time green chemistry leader with companywide responsibility and a corporate green chemistry policy and steering committee responsible for its strategic plan, communications, policy making and performance monitoring. Pfizer also has site-level green chemistry teams developing management objectives and providing incentives to staff.

Old-line chemical companies will need to innovate … or fade away.

Accumulating business-to-business and consumer demand for greener chemicals, sharp fluctuations in the price of fossil fuels from which many chemicals are made, and the lifecycle environmental burdens of fossil fuel-based chemicals, among other factors, require that traditional companies innovate towards lower toxicity, bio-based chemicals or lose market share. The more married old-line chemical companies are to their most toxic traditional chemicals, the more they resemble the apocryphal frog in a pot of water who, as the heat slowly rises to the boiling point, fails to appreciate he’s about to be scalded to death.

While there are promising signs of greener chemicals at long-established chemical companies, some of these same companies understandably feel a strong temptation to defend from regulation existing investments in old-line chemicals.

For example, while Dow Chemical Company has been introducing bio-based materials and was recognized with a Michigan governor’s green chemistry award, its Dow AgroSciences LLC subsidiary launched an arbitration claim under the North American Free Trade Agreement seeking $2 million in damages because the Province of Quebec had banned the cosmetic use of lawn pesticides including Dow’s chemical 2,4-D. Quebec is one of several provinces to have adopted such cosmetic bans, along with about 100 Canadian municipalities.

Albemarle Corporation provides a similar example. Albemarle is one of the few companies with a formally titled chief sustainability officer listed in its SEC 10-K disclosure form. But its most recent corporate sustainability report indicates it spent approximately $6 million in 2008 to defend its products, principally brominated flame retardants.

Albemarle, with other bromine industry companies collaborating as the Bromine Science and Environment Forum, reportedly contracted with public relations firms to deploy groups named “Citizens for Fire Safety” and “Californians for Fire Safety” to oppose, for example, legislation that would restrict use of its products in items for infants and toddlers.

Green chemistry initiatives can also be organized on a state or local basis, when green chemistry is viewed as a driver of economic development or where concentrations of multi-disciplinary technical expertise can be drawn upon to drive innovation. The most prominent examples are California, which is striving to implement the most ambitious green chemistry program in the nation, and Maine and Michigan.

The University of California at Berkeley, at the state legislature’s request, produced the report Green Chemistry in California: A Framework for Leadership in Chemicals Policy and Innovation. The report recommended that California develop a comprehensive chemicals policy that would provide greater incentives for corporate investments in green chemistry. In April 2007, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control launched the California Green Chemistry Initiative, a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder series of symposia and workshops that led to recommendations to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for a state-level green chemistry policy and program. State lawmakers subsequently enacted legislation establishing elements of such a program that are now being implemented.

The state of Maine clearly views green chemistry as an economic driver. In October 2007, Maine’s economic development and environmental protection agencies, in collaboration with Maine companies and environmental health activists, convened a conference, “Growing Maine’s Green Economy: Better Living Through Green Chemistry.” They discussed expanding Maine’s economy by replacing hazardous materials in consumer products with safer alternatives. The participants focused primarily on replacing petroleum-based chemicals with bio-based ones, including making bio-based plastic from Maine potatoes.

In April 2008, Governor John Baldacci signed related legislation, colloquially labeled “The Kid-Safe Products Act,” which requires Maine to publish a list of chemicals of high concern that have been identified as dangerous to children by another government agency or the state’s experts. It also requires Maine to name at least two chemicals or groups of chemicals of high concern as “priority chemicals” because they are likely to expose Maine children to harm or have been banned in another state. Manufacturers must report products sold in the state containing a priority chemical. The bill allows Maine to restrict the sale of such products if safer alternatives are available at comparable cost. The list of chemicals of high concern was published in 2009; the list and additional updated details can be found here

The conference and the products legislation together are a carrot/stick approach to reducing human health and environmental hazards: squeeze down on “known bads” and provide incentives for “more goods.”

In October 2006, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed an executive order, Promotion of Green Chemistry for Sustainable Economic Development and Protection of Public Health. The order directs Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to establish a green chemistry support program to promote and coordinate state green chemistry research, development, education, and technology transfer activities in Michigan. Updated details on the program are available here. The Great Lakes Green Chemistry Network (GLGCN) complements the State of Michigan’s efforts. GLGCN’s mission is to create partnerships among academia, industry, government, labor, and nongovernmental organizations to promote green chemistry practices in the bi-national US/Canada Great Lakes region.

Tomorrow, Part 3 of this series continues with descriptions of the building blocks for the 2030 green chemistry vision, focusing on policy changes and examples of past achievements from green chemistry investments.


Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org. The author is engaged with numerous organizations and processes discussed above; mention of commercial products and services should not be construed as endorsement. This article has benefited from comments provided by colleagues working on toxicity reduction. Portions are reprinted with permission from the author’s Green Chemistry article in Berkshire Publishing Group’s Encyclopedia of Sustainability.

Images CC licensed by Flickr users newlow, joi, MonkeySimon and thesoftlanding. Image of shoe courtesy of Nike.