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Effectively Communicating the Need for Green Chemistry

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Change is hard and it takes a compelling reason to do it. Implementing green chemistry principles in your work takes significant effort, so why do it? What message sparked your interest and motivated you to change your perspective and work?

In a recent paper, “If Chemists Don’t Do It, Who Is Going To?” Peer-driven Occupational Change and the Emergence of Gree...​" the authors explore the effects of arguments used by advocates of green chemistry in an attempt to promote its adoption to their peers. Borrowing a concept from communication theory — framing — the authors find evidence that the way green chemistry is presented affects whom it resonates with or not. For chemists who want to get an “outside” perspective on their field, this paper sets the discussion within the current understanding of how occupations change in response to various pressures. The findings may also help you communicate your research or work more effectively to different audiences and troubleshoot unexpected reactions.

Last year, green chemistry celebrated its 25th anniversary. From the beginning, its growth has been, to a significant extent, organic — driven by chemists advocating for change among their peers. Although external forces (e.g., regulations and pressure from retailers/consumers) are growing factors in support of change, most green chemistry efforts remain voluntary initiatives.

The early green chemistry advocates used several distinct arguments to encourage a wide variety of chemists to adopt green chemistry principles, which themselves outlined a variety of avenues chemists could use to rethink their processes. The three frames identified through analysis of extensive interviews and archival data are as follows:

The Normalizing Frame positions green chemistry as an approach in line with mainstream chemistry’s focus on discovery, design, and the optimization of processes. If you side with green chemistry’s call for innovation, you probably connect with the Normalizing Frame.

The Moralizing Frame is the ethical imperative to do chemistry in a way that minimizes chemistry’s negative impact on human and environmental health, or ideally puts humanity on a path toward sustainability. If you align with these values and seek to apply them to your work, this frame probably speaks to you.

The Pragmatizing Frame looks to green chemistry for its usefulness in providing perspectives that open up new ways to tackle practical problems. If you find green chemistry an effective tool to cut costs, pack more students in your fume hood-free lab, and/or create products that will not likely be subjects of future chemical regulation, this frame applies to you.

Of course, many of us associate with more than one of the above frames; they all are valuable. Interestingly, the authors found that each frame tends to resonate with a specific occupational role: The Normalizing Frame attracts innovators; educators, public communicators, and students are attracted to the Moralizing Frame; and problem solvers are attracted to the Pragmatizing Frame. Does this ring true to you?

Tensions Between Frames

The existence of multiple frames has attracted a diverse group of chemists to green chemistry, providing certain strength to the community. However, it has also created a degree of resistance among chemists who might have been compelled by one frame, but find another frame undercuts the message and turns them off. Three tensions were identified:

Tension of Quality: Innovators and researchers attuned with the Normalizing Frame are turned off by the Pragmatizing Frame’s focus on practical applications. The perception that cutting-edge fundamental research is not compatible with applied research is wrapped up into this tension.

Tension of Commitment: The moralizing frame, while a powerful motivator for many, can rub some chemists the wrong way. Problem solvers attracted to the Pragmatizing Frame use green chemistry in support of other business or organizational goals. Green chemistry is not a guiding principle, as it is in the Moralizing Frame, but one of many useful tools — and in any business, there are limits on how much one can push a greener approach if it is not also benefiting the bottom line.

Tension of Complexity: Innovators also have trouble with the Moralizing Frame because in their research they know that to achieve the best result, one must often make trade-offs. A chemistry that is greener in one regard, may lag in another and often does not hit all of the principles of green chemistry.

As a result of these tensions, the authors note, some voices have expressed the need to narrow the message and focus on green chemistry’s ability to advance the science (the Normalizing Frame). However, others in the community have advocated to keep the doors open and continue to utilize any message that works to reach the largest number of people — whether tensions arise or not.

We will end where we began… Change is never easy. It is natural that those who are “dipping their toes” in green chemistry will begin with small changes. However, as one works with the principles over time, a natural expectation arises that one will continue to develop a more robust, innovative and nuanced understanding of how the arc of chemical research and development can be bent toward the ever-elusive dream of a truly sustainable science — the necessary underpinning of a sustainable society and world. As a community of early adopters, how can we strive to hold green chemistry as an inclusive yet rigorous way of doing science, attractive to our brightest minds, biggest sources of funding, most capable implementers, and most diverse and inspired crop of young chemists yet?

Reference Table




Motivation for green chemistry

GC is consistent with mainstream chemistry in its focus on discovery, design and optimization(e.g., optimizing a reaction, exploiting chemical diversity, designing out hazards)

Ethical imperative to deliver social benefits and take ownership over the impact of their work(e.g., What better choices can we make?)

GC can help you tackle day-to-day challenges (e.g., getting in front of regulations and increasing the safety of labs, which increases the amount of students they can handle)

Who tends to resonate with each frame

(Note: A chemist may take on different roles in one job or over the course of his/her career, thereby resonating with multiple frames.)

Chemists in role of innovators

“GC forces you to think about chemistry differently…which pushes you toward innovation.”

Chemists in role of educators and communicators

Audiences critical of chemistry, such as the public and consumers, students who may be inspired to make a difference, chemists who want to think of their research benefiting people, and the planet

Chemists in role of problem solvers

Cuts the cost of waste disposal and operating fume hoods; helps with fundraising and curbing manufacturing costs

Description of the tensions that may arise between frames

Tension of Quality between Normalizing and Pragmatizing

Innovators say, “We don’t do applied research,” “GC is for folks who can’t come up with better ideas,” “uptake in liberal arts colleges puts off research universities doing ‘cutting-edge research,” “publishing because it’s green not good research” “not rigorous”

Tension of Complexity between Moralizing and Normalizing frames

Innovators think GC principles don’t capture the complexities and nuances in developing chemical products and processes

Tension of Commitment between Pragmatizing and Moralizing

Problem solvers use GC when it supports other goals, not as a guiding principle like the moralizing frame suggests. GC incompatible with need to make trade-offs, can only cut so much inefficiency out

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