Dawn Rittenhouse

A sustainable chemical industry. To many that sounds like an oxymoron. How can the industry that produced the materials that caused Love Canal, Bhopal, and the ozone hole ever be sustainable?

However, I would argue that the question cannot be "Can the chemical industry become sustainable?" The questions must be "How does the chemical industry become sustainable?" Today, synthetic chemicals are part of every product we use, from cell phones and computers, to our clothes, our automobiles, and our housing. BASF got it perfect with their tag line - "We don't make the products you use, we make the products you use better." If we do not figure out how to make the chemical industry sustainable, we will not, by definition, develop a sustainable world.

Right now, sustainability is a journey ... maybe someday, if we are successful, it will be an endpoint. The chemical industry took the first step of the journey in 1985 with Responsible Care®. Responsible Care® was fundamentally about taking responsibility for our operations, and through product stewardship, our products throughout the lifecycle. Not a bad start; in fact, for the time, an amazingly proactive initiative.

Despite the effort that has gone into implementing Responsible Care® globally, public perception of the industry is still very low. Probably not surprising. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) tested the blood of 14 European Union Environmental Ministers to determine levels of persistent chemicals (they all had man-made chemicals in their blood) and recent studies have indicated that Arctic animals have high levels of the brominated compounds that are typically used as fire retardants. With that kind of news in the media, it is hard to imagine a positive industry image.

So, 20 years on from the introduction of Responsible Care®, what is next? Many chemical companies are starting to ask the hard questions about what a sustainable chemical industry looks like ... what's in, what's out and, more importantly, what does the path look like, and how are we going to get from here to there?

Fortunately, we are not alone. Many other sectors are also struggling with the question and are developing ways to approach sustainability that in some cases are driving demand for more sustainable solutions from the chemical industry. HP, for example, has an extensive supplier survey to understand how their suppliers operate and how they manage their operations to enhance safety, health, environmental, and social performance. SC Johnson has a process called the "Greenlist" to help their product designers focus on raw materials that are more sustainable in the long term. The chemical industry is also reaching out to a broad group of stakeholders to help with what sustainability really means. Dow has a Corporate Environmental Advisory Committee, and DuPont has a Biotechnology Advisory Panel.

Beth, Marianne, and Dicksen have gathered a lot of information on tools like metrics and lifecycle analysis. They have also gathered information on what a number of companies have done and why. There are no silver bullets or quick fixes in the book. None of the companies is close to operating in a truly sustainable way. They have taken on different approaches so may be ahead in one area while not engaged in another area at all. But credit is due; they are leaders out there trying to forge a path.

Ideally, the companies who are leaders will be successful financially because nothing encourages imitation like the opportunity to gain a competitive advantage, or the fear of losing market position. If the leadership companies outperform their peers, then the business case will be evident and the transition to more sustainable actions will be quick. More than likely though, there will be successes that encourage imitation and there will be failures that become the reasons for some to maintain the status quo rather than seeing them as learning opportunities.

Transforming Sustainability Strategy into Action: The Chemical Industry provides an understanding of what the many facets of sustainability mean to the chemical industry and how one may take on the challenge of building an integrated sustainability approach. Anybody interested in sustainability can learn from this book, whether you have been engaged in the process for a while or are just beginning to think about sustainability as a strategy. Enjoy the journey.

Brad Allenby

Underlying the interest in "green chemistry," "sustainable engineering," "sustain-ability," and similar formulations is the beginning of what for many people is a frightening realization: we now live in an anthropogenic world. The Industrial Revolution was in many ways a revolution in material sciences and chemistry, and even today the implications of nanotechnology - chemistry at small scale - continue that revolution. The history of the human species, in fact, is in large part a history of learning to manipulate the material world, and our success in that endeavor is a significant reason why we now live in what the journal Nature calls "the

Anthropocene" - the Age of Humans (Editorial, Nature, 2003). Humans increasingly dominate the dynamics of many natural systems and material cycles; given the coming convergence of foundational technologies, especially nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, and cognitive sciences (dubbed "NBIC"), this trend will not only continue, but intensify. And our use and management of materials will remain a central feature of our continuing terraform-ing of this planet.

The evolution of this human world raises a number of difficult questions. For one thing, many people would rather it did not exist, and so retreat to simplistic formulations that may be psychologically satisfying, but are increasingly unrealistic, even dysfunctional. So it becomes a major challenge just to recognize what it is we have already wrought, and what is coming down the road, quite rapidly, directly at us. Beyond that, of course, even if we perceive the difficulties, we lack tools and methodologies with which to deal with them. In particular, we are institutionally and intellectually constrained in our ability to deal rationally with complex adaptive systems, such as complicated material and technological patterns in a rapidly evolving and increasingly global economy.

But this should not be taken pessimistically to mean that we are powerless; rather, it should be encouragement to continue to research and learn, and not to let the best become the enemy of the good. In this regard, the history of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) offers some useful insights. First, it is important to remember than when CFCs were introduced, they are adopted because they were that era's equivalent of "green chemistry." They were much safer than the chemicals they replaced (ammonia in refrigeration uses, for example, or toxic chlorinated solvents in cleaning applications); they were stable; they were energy efficient - in other words, they were a perfect example of "green chemistry." Only later did it turn out that they had the unfortunate and unanticipated ability to migrate to the upper atmosphere and there break down to reduce stratospheric ozone concentrations. This threatened the ozone layer, which absorbs high-energy ultraviolet radiation from the sun before it gets to the Earth's surface and thereby protects biological systems from its detrimental effects. As this effect was validated, a number of initiatives, including international legal agreements and technological innovation, reduced CFC emissions with the result that, at this point, we have both reasonably safe industrial processes and products, with much less potential for stratospheric ozone depletion.

What are the lessons from this experience? First, that "green chemistry" and other reductionist approaches, while often quite valuable, must be understood at the context of the modern globalized economy, where chemical and material science innovations can rapidly expand to a scale where fundamental natural systems can be impacted. In other words, it is inadequate to consider systemic effects only at a small scale; rather, we must learn to explore potential impacts at all scales, including emergent behaviors at very large scales that may be completely unanticipated. We must also learn to consider the relevant systems as a whole, not jsut as particular interests or academic disciplines dictate. Bluntly put, "it's the system, stupid." Secondly, the story does not end with the successful commercial implementation of a material or chemical innovation. Rather, we must learn to dialog with these systems on an ongoing basis, so that subtle but important effects are not missed, or ignored until they become irreversible except at great cost. This capability, which right now is not the responsibility of any institution, should be a priority for all concerned. But - and this is the good news - the CFC story, for a number of reasons, is a success story. It was complicated chemistry, complicated politics, emergent and unanticipated behaviors - but in a very short time, relatively speaking, our human systems responded. We are not powerless, unless we choose to render ourselves powerless.

We do so in two important ways. First, blinded by ideology or simply afraid of the magnitude of the challenge posed to us by the anthropogenic Earth, we may choose not to perceive what is actually going on around us. Secondly, even if we do realize what is going on, we can choose not to act, either because inaction is more comfortable, or because we cannot at this point know what might be best, rather than simply an improvement. Both options are arguably unethical.

Transforming Sustainability Strategy into Action: The Chemical Industry takes another path. Eschewing simplistic silver bullets, it pushes us forward both conceptually and operationally into new approaches, new ways of thinking, that in turn enable us to begin a rational, and ethical, interaction with this unique and strange new age that we have done so much to bring about. Forget Mars: humans have terraformed a planet already, and this book is another small step in responsibly responding to that reality. Certainly we do not yet understand the complex systems within which we are already operating, nor do we know what the best actions might always be. As this book illustrates, however, we have both the will and the capability to begin building a better world. And so the Anthropocene begins.


Editorial, "Welcome to the Anthropocene" Nature, 424; 709 (2003).

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