To me, the most important learning outcome of using systems thinking is that one always faces tradeoffs when designing/creating real products and processes; incorporating green chemistry principles into chemistry and chemical engineering curricula should demonstrate to students that the notion of a single answer to a question/problem never happens, that multiple answers will result and that each contains embedded tradeoffs. Further, by looking at problems from a more “systems’ perspective, one typically sees connections between disciplines/ subjects that were not apparent during the initial problem formulation.
I think we need to get a better understanding of what the needs of companies are now for capital, where they are accessing it and where they are having trouble and then find the right instrument and engage the right kinds of investors. We probably know that anecdotally for some companies, but I don’t know if we know it on a more global scale.
One of the problems I face as someone marketing a new green product is that it doesn't necessarily move the needle (we make a low-cost plant-based replacement for plastics) - a representative for a major soft drink brand told me, "Sustainability moves people, but not as much as the World Cup moves people. So we'll spend more of our funding on the World Cup."
Speaking with many people in Green Chemistry, they focus on the environmental and social benefits without focusing on the bottom line for businesses. The Sustainable Packaging Coalition has been successful in getting corporate buy-in on packaging sustainability, and agreeing on universal metrics. Do you think it's possible to get corporate buy-in, in other areas, for something as straightforward as a label that lists carbon content and hazardous substances used in production?
The metrics depend on your definition of “green chemistry.” Metrics can be ascribed to sustainable sourcing, zero waste, ingredient and product safety, and energy efficiency. Metrics are well developed for each of these. For example, Sustainable sourcing can be biobased content or recycled materials content, zero waste can be biodegradability, recyclability, and mass to landfill. Ingredient can be GreenScreen rating, and product safety can be CPSC warning, presence of chronic hazards, or risk based assessment
I believe that we need to steal a page from our electrical engineering/computer science brethren – owing to the explosive growth in IT innovations coming from Universities, EE/CS students are increasingly asked to work collaboratively with business students, medical students, and others in the classroom, to accelerate the pace of IT innovation -- such classes are required for their degrees and are highly desirable. Why couldn’t we also require chemists to work collaboratively in the classroom with folk from other disciplines, and make such classwork either count as a technical elective or make it required?
I agree with Eric. When I was an undergrad, I took an elective in the anthropology department on systems thinking. One of the key readings was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson. It was a life changing book for me. I am not sure if it helped me understand how I already thought or taught me a new way, or a combination. But it has definitely informed the way I look at the world ever since. Everything is connected to everything, and we have to understand the trade offs of what we do.
The role of capital markets is key to getting green chemistry to scale. We continue to hear that start-ups and even larger companies that have developed technology to produce major new chemical platforms based on green chemistry are unable to get the funding to achieve commercial scale, and get products based on green chemistry to market successfully. This is a 'valley of death' for emerging companies, and the level of funding required ($100MM+) is too large for VC's, requires multiple parallel approaches including public funding (IPO's), strategic partners with capacity to finance these plants, government agencies and most recently, major brands who see value in new products based on green chemistry to meet their strategic objectives around sustainability
Jennifer- I'm going to respond to part three of your question. Let me start by saying that I am not a chemist! My last chemistry class was in high school. I had an excellent liberal arts education as an undergrad and I think those kinds of degrees are important, though have become less valued. I think we all have heard stories about how people have had to take an elective in a field that is not their major and have had their lives changed. I don’t know how chemistry is taught, but I do think that requiring liberal arts courses- philosophy, anthropology, psychology, etc- helps broaden peoples’ thinking and makes them more well rounded and able to approach problems.
The key to any successful small business is a strong customer focus – one must never lose sight of what the customer wants when creating a business based on green chemistry. Clearly, no customer desires hazard, so reducing hazard (versus the competition) should be desirable to customers, so long as price and performance are also competitive. So, rather than making green chemistry the “end”, can one use green chemistry to elevate performance, reduce cost, and lower hazard? A good example might be in terms of plasticized PVC – one could spend significant time creating a greener plasticizer, but the customer does not desire a greener plasticizer, but rather a soft, pliable material that is safe to use (these are not the same). As such, perhaps create a material that requires no plasticizer at all, but is soft and pliable without any plasticizer. The driving force must always be customer desired outcomes, the strength of the competition, and the size of the market – this is the definition of opportunity.