Sunday, May 24, 2015

Green chemistry: understanding barriers and opportunities


We have a long way to go to mainstream green chemistry. Now in its 10th year, the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), a network of some 70 companies across sectors and supply chains, has undertaken a number of projects, aimed at supporting dialogue and model collaborations that advance research, development and adoption of green chemistry solutions.

These efforts have helped to: establish approaches to enhance chemical information flow, through supply chains, while protecting confidential business information; support informed decision making through supply chains on alternatives to priority chemicals; educate professionals across firms on the fundamentals and value of green chemistry and adoption models; connect firms across sectors to learn from each other’s challenges, and approaches to overcoming them; and support funding for research and development in green chemistry. 

Ten years ago, major barriers that we identified were resistance to change, concerns about lower performance of green chemistry solutions, lack of data to make the business case, lack of good information through supply chains, and uncertainty about what we mean by green chemistry. While some of these have been addressed over the past ten years, several still remain. A survey of GC3 members in 2014 identified a number of practical impediments including the high cost of research and scaling of green chemistry solutions and the lack of technically, and economically, viable options.

To better understand the barriers to, and opportunities for, accelerating green chemistry, and to build its “Agenda for Mainstreaming Green Chemistry”, the GC3 commissioned three reports for its 10th annual innovators Roundtable, held in April at Nike, Inc:
Making the business and economic case for green chemistry (Released on 5 May). Co-sponsored with the American Sustainable Business Council and undertaken by the consultancy Trucost, this explores the business and value of green chemistry through document review, interviews with key experts, and data analysis;
Barriers to green chemistry adoption and means to accelerate growth along the supply chain (to be released in June). This report, researched by chemical industry experts T Fennelly & Associates, identifies, through more than 50 interviews and document analysis, nine key deterrents to growth as well as four accelerators to more effectively drive it; and 
Measuring progress towards green chemistry (to be released in June). This white paper, drafted by Environmental & Public Health Consulting, examines the landscape of different types of metrics that can and are being used to measure progress and proposes ways they can enhance this.
These three reports, combined with 10 years of cross-sectoral dialogue in the GC3, note that the opportunities for adoption are promising but activity in this space is sporadic and mostly in reaction to some identified problem, rather than part of a comprehensive innovation strategy. A number of key barriers still exist, including:
  • the lack of robust analyses and data on economic opportunities and risks, specific to adoption on an industry-wide scale;
  • limited, widely used metrics to evaluate progress in research and adoption;
  • supply chain complexity, which creates fragmentation of demand for innovations by application, volume, specification, customer expectation and geography. Complex supply chains also create a barrier to change because they have established infrastructures, strong supplier-customer relationships and mature cost positions; 
  • incumbency, where existing industry infrastructure is so efficient that it is hard for new entrants to compete with the established supply chain; 
  • price/performance, where existing chemicals have set the standard. In other words they work well and are cost competitive. This becomes a greater barrier when the sustainability heads of brands or retailers ask for new, more sustainable options but the sourcing decision makers in the same organisation want those options at similar or lower cost;
  • concerns about switching risk, where changing to green chemistry alternatives could lead to market failures, such as market loss due to a product’s poor performance, brand tarnishing and other hidden costs, such as changes to process or equipment, material incompatibility, workforce training, or customer education;
  • lack of demand, where there is not enough, real or perceived, to make increased production worth the investment and where stakeholders are cautious to move forward to commit to demand or supply; and
  • market confusion, where conflicting information from studies and research, policy uncertainties and lobbying efforts lead to the value and risks of a green chemistry investment being unclear.
While the challenges are real, these research efforts and dialogue have identified a number of enablers, many of which are related to addressing supply chain misalignment, including:
  • increasing consumer awareness, particularly that of large institutional consumers and retailers – has been a significant driver of demand for safer chemistries. In the future, these large consumers need to have a greater understanding of the options available or on the horizon as well as realistic expectations of the process of developing and gaining required approvals and certifications for new chemicals;
  • developing smart policies. If these are well-designed, both supportive and restrictive, they can provide important incentives for green chemistry development, adoption and scale. For example, the proposed Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act would establish an advisory committee and action agenda for incentives, technical and information support, collaborations, demonstration, and education;
  • increasing collaboration and partnership across the value chain, including give and take (compromise). Addressing supply chain misalignment will require improved communication and joint working, at the earliest stages possible. This can help address issues such as cost and risk sharing, performance expectations, and demonstrating demand. Business to business collaboration needs to be supplemented with enhanced academic-business partnerships and mechanisms to link those with green chemistry challenges with those who might provide solutions;
  • using market forces effectively to drive innovation. Recent efforts in the health care, building and retail sectors demonstrate the important leverage that large purchasers have. For example, the GC3 has convened a group of seven major retailers (the Retailer Leadership Council) to engage in dialogue with large chemical manufacturers to accelerate development of green chemistry solutions for priority chemical functions. Brands, for example, in the footwear and apparel sector, can also collaborate in a pre-competitive space to drive innovative solutions;
  • understanding and informing the marketplace. Research is needed to better understand market forces and where they may be leveraged to the benefit of green chemistry, through knowledge of costs, barriers, policy and trends in demand, and workforce needs. Additionally, getting the right kind of information – on green chemistry solutions, incentives, success stories, etc - to the people who need it, such as supply chain actors and policy makers can help spur informed actions; 
  • developing better data and narratives and a more consistent metric: there is a clear need for data to make a strong business case. This includes quantifiable economic and health-related data, but also case examples that provide both transferable models and compelling evidence of successes. A more effective set of metrics can help better characterise momentum towards mainstreaming green chemistry; and
  • educating the next generation of leaders and champions in green chemistry. Building a cultural and institutional change will require significant changes in education – both within firms (and supply chains) and university training for scientists (as well as other disciplines) so that they can understand and evaluate how chemical design affects health and environment and are able to work in multi-disciplinary teams to solve product and material challenges, applying green chemistry techniques.
Recent research, and ten years of collaborative projects through the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, have demonstrated that there is increasing energy and commitment toward mainstreaming green chemistry. The challenge is now in channelling that energy towards a strategic and integrated vision. 


While green chemistry may not yet be mainstream, the tools and approaches to getting there are evolving: cross-sectoral, value chain collaboration is growing; innovative new chemistries and materials are being developed; and education and awareness are progressing. The challenge for the coming years will be to move from niche to scale. 

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