Chicago Green Jobs

Sustainability’s Next Big Thing: Green Chemistry
January 6, 2010, 6:08 pm
Filed under: Green Chemistry

Job security for mad scientists: on the rise? Image by practical owl via Flickr, CC license

It’s 2010, and you know what that means! That’s right – it’s sustainability trend prediction time! Not to toot my own horn, but I have a pretty good track record with this (tooooot). I saw green business trends on the rise in 2005, started pursuing my Green MBA in 2006, and then dropped out to work with Walmart on sustainability in 2007 back when everyone thought they were kidding about going green. Good times!

And since we all know from watching the stock market that past performance is a perfect indicator of future success, I thought it would be fun to try predicting the Next Big Thing in Sustainability. One word: Plastics. Or, to be more specific, Green Chemistry.

There are tens of thousands of chemicals floating around in the products that we use every day and the overwhelming majority of them have never actually been tested for harmful effects on human health or the environment. Here are five indicators that show we’re about to hit a tipping point:

1. BPA Breakthrough. Every trend needs a breakthrough celebrity, and Bisphenol-A is the clear front runner. BPA packs a one-two punch: not only does this estrogen-mimicking  chemical have measurably nasty impacts on health, it’s in EVERYTHING.  As a result BPA bans are on the rise by both governments and manufacturers, bringing big visibility to the fact that products we use every day without thinking twice are full of chemicals that are hazardous to our health. Which brings me to my second point: won’t someone please think about the johnson?

2. Threats to manliness. Let’s face it: most folks are prepared to brush off scary news about health threats with a dismissive “everything causes cancer anyway, so oh well” attitude.  It’s BPA to the rescue again:  exposure to BPA impacts adult male sexual performance! Well why didn’t you say so! That’s the kind of issue you can build some real buzz on, which is important because public concern makes it much easier for governments and corporations to move aggressively to make changes.

Three more indicators that green chemistry is going big after the jump.

3. Obama’s EPA actually functions. I worked in DC during the early W years, and my friends at the EPA were some of the most depressed people I knew. Fortunately, Obama’s EPA actually believes in its own mission and is taking steps to tackle the loopholes and weak regulations that allow rampant untested chemical use. The Washington Post had an excellent story on some of the challenges presented by chemical regulation a few days ago.

It seems that under a little known federal provision, chemical manufacturers can keep the names and physical properties of their chemicals completely secret from consumers and the government! According to the EPA, there are 17,000 chemicals in products on our shelves that we know absolutely nothing about.  There are some hilariously awful statistics in this story, but here’s the good news:

A week after he arrived at the agency in July, Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances, ended confidentiality protection for 530 chemicals. In those cases, manufacturers had claimed secrecy for chemicals they had promoted by name on their Web sites or detailed in trade journals.

It’s a start! Transparency is the first step to change, and the smarter companies are also on the bandwagon.

4. Walmart’s GreenWERCS Index. This is one of my favorite Walmart initiatives: a publicly accessible index that assesses the chemical composition of just about any non-food product you can imagine. The index makes it easy to compare similar products on levels of carcinogens, mutagens, toxins, endocrine disruptors, and hazardous waste.  The idea here is that once chemical content information is available in an easy-to-use, consistent score that all sensible people will prefer to purchase products that contain fewer potential health hazards. Manufacturers usually work best when the market demands change instead of government.

5. California’s AB 1879: Comprehensive Green Chemistry Legislation. Of course, the state of California is a unique blend of government and market. The state government has already leveraged their status as the 8th largest economy in the world to drive strong fuel economy standards for car manufacturers and their latest legislative efforts around setting good green chemistry standards are continuing in that tradition.

The really cool thing about California’s Green Chemistry Initiative is that it aims to eliminate toxic chemicals in the design and development of products instead of just trying to clean up the mess at the end. Although this particular initiative is in its beginning phases and hasn’t gotten much coverage yet, law firms are starting to grow their expertise in this field – a good indicator that they anticipate a fair amount of corporate interest.

Add these five concrete indicators to the general rise in interest in holistic health and wellness, the decrease in public willingness to accept “just trust us” from companies and governments in the wake of the financial collapse, the search for the cause of increased rates of autism, and the growing awareness that personal health is a key component of environmental sustainability and you’ve got a trend waiting to hit. Keep an eye out for companies that are getting in front by designing top quality products and selling them at a premium – these are the ones to watch.


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[…] for. But I do predict that as more and more of these crimes against common sense come to light that we’re going to see action on this front. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Workshop 4: Tower Hamlets Freestate CASE STUDIES […]

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