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Cracking the Sustainability Code

Chemists move to the front line as public concern shifts to products

by Rick Mullin
January 5, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 1


At this year's Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) holiday dinner, I was seated at a table with the recipients of the group's 2003 Responsible Care Awards: Nufarm Specialty Products, Rhodia, and BASF's Evans City, Pa., facility (formerly Callery Chemical). Strictly as a matter of polite chitchat, I asked, "What's new in Responsible Care?"

The reply was unexpectedly interesting. The news about the industry's well-known performance improvement program is not, as I expected to hear, its recent overhaul. It's the old product stewardship code.

Designed as a means of extending a manufacturer's responsibility for the safety of chemicals from cradle to grave, product stewardship has always been a sticking point. Getting downstream customers in other industries to buy into Responsible Care is a continuing battle. But it seems the challenge of product stewardship has shifted significantly upstream and decidedly in-house. The crux is now closer to the cradle end of things--the lab.

Greater buy-in is now being sought from research chemists as management applies increased force on the always tough fit between business and science. Just as the big drug companies are telling their discovery operations not to pass along projects that haven't been vetted for likely success in clinical trials, chemical producers are telling researchers that new materials must be designed to meet increased environmental, health, and safety requirements.

More vexing, products that have been on the market for decades must also prove themselves worthy on the grounds of their environmental, health, and safety performance. With the Environmental Protection Agency's voluntary High Production Volume Challenge Program, launched in 1998, and Europe's proposed Registration, Evaluation & Authorization of Chemicals (REACH) initiative, the weight of public concern about the chemical industry, aside from security, is shifting from operational safety to product performance.

Sustainability--generally defined as a "triple bottom line" of economic prosperity, environmental stewardship, and corporate social responsibility--has entered mainstream parlance to define the industry's new focus. It is a term that has been bandied about almost as long as "globalization" and maybe even longer than "reengineering." But lately it's the central issue. That's because there will be no globalization and nothing to reengineer if the industry cannot move forward with public trust in the safety of what it produces.

The sense of urgency is approaching the level reached 20 years ago when the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, forced industry to prove its competence at running safe manufacturing plants. Responsible Care, born in the wake of the 1984 crisis, succeeded in marshaling the industry as a whole toward big improvements in plant operations, employee health and safety, and community relations.

Faced with the challenge of sustainability, industry is turning again to Responsible Care. Although this sounds like a conditioned response, it is actually an engaging notion given recent changes to Responsible Care.

Earlier this year, the American Chemistry Council, the arbiter of the program in the U.S.--SOCMA licenses it from ACC--introduced a holistic, third-party-verified management system analogous to the International Organization for Standardization's ISO 9000 and 14000 quality and environmental management regimes. This adaptation to Responsible Care promotes the kind of publically accountable, cradle-to-grave thinking required to improve the environmental, health, and safety performance of chemicals. The program will now require research chemists to get more involved in Responsible Care and thus in their employers' business.

Terry F. Yosie, ACC's vice president for Responsible Care, suggests that R&D has been working on the periphery and that this will have to change. "Historically, there has not been a close connection between Responsible Care and the lab," Yosie says. However, he expects the redesigned program will pull the lab in by eliminating it as a separate functional category. With sustainability and product life cycle as unifying principles in the revamped program, "we are crawling out of our respective silos," he says.

Still, industry cannot count on Responsible Care to move like some invisible hand, automatically pulling the world in the right direction. Chemists will need more than Responsible Care, and chemical companies will have to think well outside their program's box.

Chemists, for example, need better access to information about the health and safety profiles of the chemicals they use. Eastman Chemical, in fact, has identified this need as a potential boom market. It recently purchased Ariel Research, an environmental, health, and safety database company, and has launched a consulting business. ACC's Long-Range Research Initiative, which funds independent research on the impacts of chemicals, is generating the kind of data that chemists will need in the lab.

And universities must incorporate principles of sustainability into chemistry instruction, beginning at the undergraduate level. This will require that a sharper focus be given to a "green chemistry" perspective that today lacks an adequate business context and tends to relegate sustainability to postdegree on-the-job training.

Perhaps the next frontier is a closer liaison between industry and academe in formulating a curriculum that better prepares chemists for service on the front line.



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