Transforming End-of-Life Bits Into Tomorrow’s Atoms: Are Women The 13th Principle in Green Chemistry? (Part 3)

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Contributed by Mark Evans, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Camston Wrather

The structure of this series first touched on the consumption and disposal of electronic waste and its environmental and human health impacts (Part 1), followed by a technical overview of current resource recovery methods, both informal and formal (Part 2). This final installment will highlight the importance of taking a multi-disciplinary approach when implementing applied scientific discoveries and, in particular, the challenges faced when attempting to bring the larger concept of green chemistry to market in a circular economy.

Throughout the course of this series, one might have gleaned that implementing green chemistry will require drawing from multiple academic disciplines like chemistry, material science and engineering in order to reach a new level of understanding in bringing a technical solution to market. That is definitely a major part of it, but there is also a more profound significance that lies just outside our notion of developing green chemistry. That profound significance is the role that women play in the success of implementing green chemistry.

I am not alluding to the lack of women in science and engineering (16 percent for chemical engineers), our dismal — indeed arcane — reluctance to promote women to the C-suite (at Fortune 500 companies, women account for just 15 percent of corporate executives), or our persistent gender pay gap (in 2015, full-time women working in the U.S. were paid just 80 percent of what men were paid). Although each of these are major issues, I am alluding to the role women play in whether any green innovation will ever become commercially viable.

There have been many attempts to organize the various principles of green chemistry. Most people accept the 12 principles of green chemistry designated by Paul Anastas and John Warner as the current standard model or definition, and although it excels in describing the fundamental design principles, it is silent on its implementation. This brings us to this series’ most salient point:

If green chemistry is to achieve its environmental mission, it must displace or disrupt an existing process wherein the final product is commercially viable.

In short, if you cannot sell your greener product, then the environmental benefits will never be realized.

In the ACS section entitled History of Green Chemistry, it states: “Green chemists and engineers are working to take their research and innovations out of the lab and into the board room through the creation of viable industrial products that can be embraced by today’s industry leaders.” I would argue that it is less about a viable green product being embraced by industry leaders and more about whether a viable green product will be embraced by women. That might sound controversial, but let’s have a look at the facts.

Consider the following: 85 percent of all consumer brand purchases are made by women, with 92 percent of them passing along information on deals and finds to others. If you are designing a green process for the construction industry, you should know that 91 percent of new home purchase decisions are made by women. In fact, 51 percent of personal electronic purchases, 60 percent of new cars, 93 percent of food and 93 percent of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals are made by women, accounting for more than $5 trillion annually, or roughly one-half of the U.S. GDP.

Over the next decade, women will control two-thirds of consumer wealth ($12 to $40 trillion), yet 84 percent feel misunderstood by investment marketers, 91 percent say advertisers do not understand them and 74 percent feel misunderstood by automobile marketers.

For example, the pulp and paper industry is among the world’s largest producers of air and water pollutants, and it also consumes a vast amount of raw materials, like water, energy and forest fibers. Now let’s assume a greener process was invented that dramatically reduces GHG emissions and energy consumption for paper towels, and we used our standard advertising and marketing campaigns to sell that product. The ad would, more than likely, depict a husband and son watching a spill cross the room until Mom comes along to cheerfully clean up the mess. This is not how you market to women or for greener products, yet these types of marketing stereotypes still persist.

This brings up an interesting question: If women control 93 percent of household purchases, will they be receptive to green marketing? That answer is yes, with nearly 50 percent of women wanting more green choices. Too many businesses behave as if women have no say over purchasing decisions, and companies continue to offer women poorly conceived products and services and outdated marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes. If green chemistry is to reach its environmental mission, then it must accomplish this task through product sales. If the vast majority of product sales are determined by women, then using outdated marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes is not the best course of action. Therefore, if green chemistry is to reach its environmental mission, we need to stop outdated marketing narratives that promote these stereotypes. This argument is not only logical, but it is sound as well, because if you believe in a world where the alternative is true, then you would be one that believes in continuing environmental degradation and negative female stereotypes.

Some might argue that the role of the chemist and the discovery of greener processes lies outside the purview of end-product marketing. After all, it is up to a company’s marketing division to brand and sell its products. While fundamentally true, if we consider the current 12 principles of green chemistry as a starting point to achieve actualized environmental benefits, then product success becomes part of the equation.

In wrapping up this series, it is my opinion that green chemistry and the principles currently used to define it are not fixed constructs, but rather, merely starting propositions. Taking a multi-disciplinary approach when implementing applied scientific discoveries will necessarily entail product sales. If we continue to use outdated narratives and negative stereotypes towards the largest purchasing segment of our population — women — then we run the risk of never fully realizing the power of our scientific and engineering achievements.


Mark Evans is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Camston Wrather and a University of California at Berkeley, Alumni.

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