Originally published by the Guardian
November 10, 2016
by Bruce Watson
It’s easy to imagine the battle for greener chemistry as a titanic struggle between government and industry – but it’s consumers who really call the shots
Whenever the battle against toxic chemicals makes headlines, it’s usually linked to huge, sprawling disasters like Flint’s poisoned water or BPA-laden plastics – the kind of thing that involves large scale poisoning and disease and defies an easy solution. And, on those rare occasions when a happy chemistry story breaks – like the ban on antibacterial ingredients like triclosan, or the reauthorization of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which will expand the government’s ability to regulate chemicals – the combination of confusing chemistry and bizarre political maneuvering makes the story almost incomprehensible for anybody who isn’t already an expert.
It’s easy to imagine the battle for greener chemistry as a titanic struggle between goliath industries and sprawling governments, with consumers watching from the sidelines as their lives and health hang in the balance. But this perspective – and most stories about toxic chemicals – ignore a key part of the equation: consumer demand. For all the much-discussed push of government policies and industry innovations, it’s the pull of consumers and the market that ultimately fuels the biggest changes.
The experts at the Guardian’s Green Chemistry Conference in New York in November highlighted the need to help consumers recognize the pull that they exert. On the government side, they’re focusing on policies and infrastructure projects that address voter concerns; on the consumer side, they’re bringing safer, greener products to market, often in the face of resistance from entrenched industries. In both cases, they’re being tugged along by the increasingly vocal desires an
The big government push
For all the complexity of lobbying and lawmaking, the US government has two main tools for spurring greener chemistry: restricting certain chemicals or practices, and taxing certain outputs, like carbon dioxide. But these two techniques have serious drawbacks: as the 15-year struggle to reauthorize TSCA demonstrates, laws and restrictions are slow and unwieldy. Worse yet, they are often decades behind the times. In the case of TSCA, the EPA can now regulate thousands of chemicals – which means that it’s facing a massive backlog of untested chemicals that are already on the market. At the current pace, some analysts calculate, it could take the agency hundreds of years to catch up.
When it comes to policy, taxes often aren’t much better. Speaking at the Guardian’s Green Chemistry conference earlier this month, Brent Constantz, CEO of carbon sequestration company BluePlanet, explained why the math behind a carbon tax, one of the most discussed sustainability approaches, doesn’t add up: “Scientists tell us that even with the Paris accords, we’re on track to emit 100bn tons of carbon dioxide per year. And the Chinese are telling us that they want us to pay them $100 per ton to not emit CO2. A hundred times a hundred billion is a very large number. There’s just not that much money in the world.”
But there’s a third approach that the government could take. “What governments do have, and they’re not using responsibly, is their purchasing muscle,” Constantz said.
BluePlanet produces limestone from carbon dioxide that it collects from a power plant in Monterey Bay, California. Constantz said the government’s role as a purchaser has made a major difference for his company. Every year, state governments use millions of tons of rock in their federally funded highway building projects. “In California, we get $11bn to buy rock and we import it from Canada and Mexico,” he said, noting that BluePlanet’s artificially-made limestone can take the place of these foreign imports.
Sequestered carbon dioxide isn’t the only environmental crisis that government road building can help ease: California also uses its highway contracts to deal with used tires, which are notoriously difficult to dispose of. “In California, we’ve got a state job saying that if you want to get a state job laying asphalt, you have to have recycled tire rubber in the asphalt, or you can’t even bid on the job,” Constantz said. “It’s been 100% effective: there’s no tires in California. We’re importing tires.”
The big consumer pull
These government moves don’t happen in a vacuum: numerous policies, including the California Tire Recycling Act, which paved the way for tire rubber to be used in asphalt, and the state’s flame retardant legislation, which paved the way for less toxic furniture, were the result of committed activism that brought the issues home to voters and consumers.
But while average citizens play a part in passing legislation, they have a more immediate and vital impact on the products that come to market – and their survival rate once they get there. Larry Weiss, chief medical officer of skin products company AOBiome, discovered this in 2014, when his company was testing a new skincare product that uses bacteria to fight skin problems, including oiliness, dryness, blotchiness and sensitivity. One of the study’s subjects was a New York Times journalist, who reported on her experiences. “It became one of the most forwarded articles in the New York Times, and we soon had 20,000 requests for a product that didn’t exist,” he said.
Weiss attributes the interest in his products to a growing consumer awareness. “What’s changing all of this is millennial women because they’re doing something that nobody ever did before: they read the labels,” he says. “Their kids have diseases that they didn’t have, and they’re very concerned.”
Consumer awareness doesn’t only create markets for new brands; it can also translate into influence over brands that they already use. Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for Levi Strauss, noted his company created its own restrictions on hazardous chemicals, which it then extended to its suppliers and manufacturers. In 2012, it pushed further, joining with other brands, including H&M and Nike, to change the industry. “We made a pledge that by 2020, we would have zero discharge of hazardous chemicals,” he said.
That promise has carried some downsides, which Levi’s has been very open about. For example, the company’s alternative waterproofer, which is much safer than the PFCs that it used to use, it doesn’t last as long. “Hopefully, having this is going to spur the industry to find something that does last longer,” Kobori said.
Ultimately, green chemical substitutions in the supply chain or FDA approval of newer, greener chemicals are processes that consumers don’t get to see. But with a growing number of companies working to make highly visible, consumer facing changes to their products, the pull of consumer demand is helping to drive the market – and innovators and company owners are taking note.