Connecting Industry to Community: A Conversation on First Steps with Jennifer MacKellar

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By Ashley Baker, Scientific Content Manager (Contractor) at the ACS Green Chemistry Institute

Jennifer MacKellar, Program Director at Change Chemistry, discusses how the organization is approaching the increasingly critical intersection of green chemistry and environmental justice with companies across the chemical enterprise. Read about how their new working group is taking the first steps toward more meaningful community engagement.

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If one thing is clear, it’s that there is a desire among communities and companies to have better communication. How to begin these conversations, however, is anything but straightforward.   

While green chemistry has seen significant uptake since its inception nearly 30 years ago, more recent conversations have broadened the scope of the role green chemistry can play in creating a more sustainable world, encompassing both environmental concerns and social impacts. As environmental justice (EJ) becomes a hot topic within the federal government  with regulations and funding following  EJ has moved into the limelight. 

Jennifer MacKellar, Program Director at Change Chemistry, is a core part of the organization’s efforts to support companies in the chemical enterprise in integrating EJ into their operations. Change Chemistry’s diverse membership of over 100 organizations includes chemical manufacturers, formulators, brands, retailers, and startups, reflecting the breadth of the sector as well as its complexity. Regardless of the complexity, however, companies must now face the fact that addressing EJ issues is becoming an important part of their bottom lines. 

“Programs like the White House’s Justice40 Initiative and EJ-related funding through the Inflation Reduction Act help companies be more curious about what meaningful engagement could look like,” Jennifer said. “So, there’s the policy side of things  which is an incredibly supportive structure to move things along  then there’s the investment community, and of course there’s consumer pressure. Now that investors are really looking at sustainability issues and EJ issues as reputational risks for whether or not they would invest in a company, I see that as an important driver.” 

The trouble for companies is often where to begin, who to talk to, and how. To move these conversations forward, Change Chemistry initiated an Environmental Justice Working Group earlier this year. While many of their members are interested in the topic, there is little guidance available for how to implement EJ into company policies and actions, and even less that is tailored toward diverse company needs. There are very different conversations to have within companies, for example, between C-Suite decision-makers and technical R&D staff. And between companies, there are even more dramatic differences.  

Jennifer explained that newer companies have developed in a world where EJ is already a recognized issue, and they have had the opportunity to incorporate community engagement from the ground up. On the other hand, there are chemical companies that have been in business for a hundred years or more, that began in a very different economic and social context. They may have to reckon with histories of facilities in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, for instance, or other histories of human rights or environmental violations that muddy forward-looking relationships with communities. Creating supportive structures so companies across the spectrum can make meaningful, lasting changes  versus simply exposing problems  is essential, Jennifer said. 

“What we’re seeing is a lot of companies trying to figure out the difference between DEIR initiatives and environmental justice and how they intersect,” she said. “The tendency is to go really, really big and look for all these different connections, and we’re trying to focus in on this specific intersection between EJ and green chemistry.”  

For Change Chemistry, this means helping companies differentiate between non-chemistry-specific EJ issues, like equitable product pricing and access, and problems chemistry can address, like process mass intensity (PMI), reducing carbon footprint, reducing waste, and protecting their own workforces from hazardous chemical exposures. While not covering all aspects of EJ, changes in these areas have a large potential to positively impact overburdened or disproportionally impacted people.  

The Working Group has three main initiatives. First, they are developing a framework for business decision-makers to think about the role of their chemistry and how they achieve better EJ outcomes. That could be increased community benefits or decreased community burdens. A second initiative is evaluating EJ tools that are currently available (and their gaps). The third part of the group’s efforts is to create case studies about success stories for different aspects of EJ based on specific green chemistry innovations or processes. The goals are to show what it is possible to do, the ways companies are doing it, and the ways they are succeeding in aligning their sustainability objectives with business objectives.  

From Jennifer’s perspective, a crucial part of this is making sure that the resources internal EJ champions need, especially the metrics for a strong business case (e.g., cost, reputation, security,) are available for them to present to upper management and executives. At the same time, educational materials need to be developed to train future chemists who will bring these ideas with them when they enter the workforce. Finally, collaboration across NGOs, academia, and industry to standardize how sustainability is being measured by companies at different points in the value chain is essential.  

While existing EJ success stories are sparse among companies, Jennifer emphasized the importance of continuing to highlight green chemistry wins, even if progress feels slow. She’s optimistic that assessing the benefits of green chemistry on community and environmental health will build the case over time that it is a key part of achieving broader EJ goals.   

“When we had the EJ session for the first time at [the Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference] we had so much pushback about putting it on the agenda,” she reflected. “We got it on there, and it was so popular they had to move the session to a larger room in the middle of it. We just had to keep pushing, pushing, pushing. And now it seems like it’s top-of-mind.”  

Being in the green chemistry space for nearly a decade, Jennifer draws similarities between the progress of green chemistry adoption and the awareness of environmental justice. Students who were taught by early green chemistry adopters and who participated in programs like the ACS GCI Green and Sustainable Chemistry Summer School (which is now in its 21st year) are now in important decision-making roles and have leverage to drive change.  

“I have been shocked at how much progress we’ve seen in the last ten years,” said Jennifer. “Wherever we can see intersections with other really important topics like EJ or safety…that’s just a good thing for everybody. So, it does make me hopeful that things will shift. I see that we have far to go, but I’m excited about how innovative chemistries really are coming up with more sustainable solutions, so I think there is a lot of opportunity for positive change.” 

Critically, Jennifer noted that while the challenges are significant, collaboration, continuing the conversations, and encouraging innovation will ultimately result in meaningful advances.  

“EJ is such a complex issue, and green chemistry is not going to solve every EJ problem. But where it can be supportive, you always want it to be,” Jennifer said. “If you’re not thinking about it, you’re behind the ball.” 

 

More Change Chemistry Initiatives: 

Sustainable Chemistry Catalyst Project: Change Chemistry, with the University of Massachusetts - Lowell, is investigating how environmental justice considerations could be integrated into chemical alternatives assessment.  

Active Learning Communities: Along with the new Environmental Justice Working Group, Change Chemistry creates peer-learning opportunities for industry members around best practices, tools, and successes to identify and address barriers impeding scale and adoption of sustainable chemistry.