Green Chemistry – A New Growth Formula for Industry

By Joel Tickner 20 June, 2022

There is a once in a generation opportunity to rethink the chemicals industry for sustainability says green chems expert Prof Tickner. See why he thinks this & where the investment opportunities are

Rapidly approaching “planetary boundaries” for chem polln from which ecosystem & health impacts may be irreversible; yet, not reached global attention like climate change
Chem industry is responding but not fast enough, underlying structure makes it difficult to shift (R&D costs & slow timeline); products with green chem claims growing 12x faster
Investors & Govts need to realise that chem industry is central to achieving climate, biodiversity & waste goals; all need to work together to transition the industry
Joel Tickner
Author: Joel Tickner
Joel A. Tickner, ScD leads the Sustainable Chemistry Catalyst at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, UMass Lowell which works on research, analysis, and strategy to make chemistry safer for people and the planet. His research focuses on the development of innovative scientific methods, policies, and practices to accelerate the design and application of safer products and manufacturing processes. His research has led to the establishment and growth of the field of chemical alternatives assessment, the process of comparing alternatives for chemicals of concern. He is the founding Executive Director of the Association for the Advancement of Alternatives Assessment, a professional association. Tickner also founded the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), a powerful network of more than 100 companies, bringing together the entire value chain from chemical producers to major brands and retailers to accelerate the commercialization, adoption, and scale of green chemistry solutions. Tickner is a Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and until recently was Co-Director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute.
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The Economist hosted the World Ocean Summit on March 1-4, 2022. With more than 100 speakers, the event brought together the cross-section of the ocean community, from businesses to scientists and governments to investors, as well as civil society. It featured 6 industry tracks: shipping, fishing, aquaculture, energy, tourism and plastic. 

After listening in on an interesting discussion during the Summit, “The Invisible Wave: Catalysing a Global Moment to Address Marine Chemical Pollution“, CWR had the opportunity to follow up with one of the speakers, Joel Tickner at the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) & the University of Massachusetts Lowell to talk more about opportunities for growth in green chemistry.

CWR: Joel, thank you for sitting down with us. Given your work to make chemistry safer, can you kick us off with an overview of where the chemical industry is on this? Has the spotlight and media attention on marine pollution had an impact? How bad is the situation now?

Joel Tickner (JT): The need for government and market policies that restrict chemicals of concern is increasing as we learn more about the impacts of chemical exposures on human and planetary health, including biodiversity.

“…we are rapidly approaching “planetary boundaries” for chemical pollution from which health & ecosystem impacts may be irreversible”…


…yet, it has not reached global attention like climate change

Recent research by government and academic researchers indicates that we will not achieve sustainable chemical management in the next 30 years and in fact we are rapidly approaching “planetary boundaries” for chemical pollution from which health and ecosystem impacts may be irreversible. Research by the Economist Impact demonstrates the impacts of chemical pollution on the world’s oceans.

Yet, chemical pollution has not reached the level global attention as climate change, even though the industry is a major contributor to climate change and global plastics waste, in addition to toxic impacts.

A recent UN Environment Assembly resolution called for the creation of a Science Policy Interface for Chemicals, much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as the creation of a global plastics treaty.

Hopefully, these efforts will bring greater global attention to the challenges of toxic chemicals from production through end of life.

As for the chemical industry, it is indeed responding but perhaps not quickly enough, though this is not only their fault. However, the industry also continues to defend many problematic chemicals.  This may be in part due to the “incumbency” of existing chemicals which are cost effective, optimized, and highly integrated into global supply chains.  R&D and commercialization of chemicals costly and capital intensive and downstream customers are often not willing to pay more for solutions.

Chem industry is responding but not fast enough…

…underlying structure makes it difficult to shift

The underlying structure of the industry – large scale, capital and resource intensive processes – make it difficult to shift and along with investor pressure it results in rigidities, a focus on cost cutting, and reductions in R&D spending.  This has led to only small innovations in new molecules in the industry.  The petrochemical industry reached maturity in the 1960s and the vast majority of the chemicals on the market today by volume (somewhere in the 95% range) have been on the market for over 40 years.  One chemical industry analyst called this “chemical monoculture”. Of course, there has been a bit of innovation in some sectors of the industry, including pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals. This would never happen in other industries, such as the electronics industry. We wrote about these challenges in a series of recent articles in Environment Magazine.

CWR: A recent report, “Green Chemistry: Strong Driver of Innovation, Growth, and Business Opportunity”, from your organisation GC3 shows the significant growth in green chemistry-marketed products. What are green chemistry products? What are the key findings of the report?

JT: We don’t rigidly define green chemistry products as there are few clear metrics to define a “safer” or “green chemistry” product.  There are efforts to do that, for example through the Chemical Footprint Project and certification schemes such as US EPA’s Safer Choice program which recognizes safer products. We took a broad approach to the definition and included products that had either certifications or claims (such as “free of” indicating consumer preference) of safer chemistry.

Products with green chem claims growing 12x faster

The results were important. Based on point of sales data, products with green chemistry claims or certifications are growing significantly faster (12x) in the marketplace than incumbent products in the same product category.  These data are supplemented by survey data of major firms and case studies that indicate that the biggest areas of growth for consumer products companies is in safer, more sustainable products and that R&D across sectors and the value chain in safer chemistry is growing.

Our five key findings were that:

  1. Green chemistry-marketed products significantly outperform their conventional counterparts in consumer markets
  2. Consumers and institutional buyers are driving demand for green chemistry products
  3. Emerging government policies and investor expectations are fueling growth of the green chemistry sector
  4. The green chemistry sector will become a strong driver for job and economic growth
  5. In response to increasing demands for more sustainable product portfolios, sales, sourcing, and R&D are working hand in hand to drive green chemistry solutions into the future product mix

Overall, the analysis and other literature show that investments in green chemistry make sound economic and business sense.

CWR: The benefits of green chemistry are clear so why aren’t they the new norm? What needs to happen to see this? Specifically, what should companies be doing?  

JT: This is a good question! In 2015, the GC3, a collaborative network of more than 100 companies and other organizations undertook background research on barriers and enablers of green chemistry, of the economic and business case, of corporate needs.

What we found was that despite very strong drivers for green chemistry, the headwinds against its growth are even bigger.  As I previously noted, R&D in chemicals is costly, capital intensive, and takes time often 8-10 years from development to market and scale.  Policy and market demands often move faster than that.

Despite drivers big headwinds remain…

…R&D is costly, time intensive and can’t keep up with policy & market demands…

…Govts & investors need to play their parts

Much of the activity to drive safer and more sustainable chemicals has been focused on the demand side and not on the supply and adoption side. Further, retailers and chemical suppliers often do not understand each other and the pressures and challenges each face.

However, this isn’t only about what companies should be doing. Government and investors also need to be part of the transition to safer chemicals. They need to make the long term and significant investments needed for development, piloting, commercialization, and scale as they have for the current generation of chemicals.

For example, we worked for 15 years on a piece of legislation in the US called the Sustainable Chemistry R&D Act (finally passed in 2021) which creates a federal interagency coordinated effort to elevate sustainable chemistry R&D and innovation. Investment of this type that creates jobs and economic development opportunities should be an easy sell.  Part of the challenge is that chemistry is abstract (a topic most people hated in school) and integrated into every product type.  So, we need to find new ways to tell the story about chemical challenges and how innovations in green and sustainable chemistry can address sustainability challenges like waste or climate change.

CWR: You have mentioned the green chemistry start-up scene is vibrant. Could you elaborate and give us an overview and outlook of it? 

JT: Despite the fact that green chemistry isn’t mainstream yet, there is a growing number of innovative start-ups in this space and they do want to collaborate.

Large chemical co’s are reallocating funding from R&D to start-ups & tech they can acquire

What we’ve heard from our larger chemical companies is that – in part as a result of declining R&D funding and less nimble infrastructure – is that they are doing much more scouting to find innovative start-ups whose technology they can license or acquire; similarly, brands and manufacturers looking for innovative chemical and material solutions are increasingly partnering with start-ups to develop new technologies.

A successful project that taught us a lot of lessons about collaboration and scale of green chemistry solutions was our Preservatives Collaborative Innovation Challenge.  In that effort, we convened two major retailers, 11 brands (a mix of large international brands and smaller “green” brands), and six chemical suppliers to identify and evaluate safe and effective preservatives for consumer products, a challenge for many brands due to a shrinking palate of available preservatives.  The lesson learned from this is that innovative new molecules alone will not replace incumbents.  We need to also have strategies to address the commercialization and adoption challenges.

CWR: What does this start-up scene mean to the investors and how do you suggest them to accelerate adoption of commercialisation of green chemistry? 

JT: One of the challenges of many start ups is that they are not well connected to market or customer needs. Also, some elements of the investment community to date have been a barrier to green chemistry solutions – as they are looking for shorter term profits that can only be made through investments in existing chemistries or see R&D as a business cost rather than an opportunity for growth.

Investors will need to be ready to support R&D, piloting, capitalization, and reformulation along the value chain for green chemistry solutions to thrive. The investment community needs to understand that the chemical industry – where 90% of organic chemistry is based on fossil fuels – is central to achieving climate, biodiversity, and waste goals – but will need significant investment to become the sustainable enterprise it needs to be…

Investors need to realise that chem industry is central to achieving climate goals…

…And green chem start-ups must better communicate with investors

There is a need for the green chemistry community to be able to more effectively communicate to investors in a language they understand (risks/rewards/metrics) and for the investment community to communicate to innovators on their expectations and needs.

There are many examples of critical green chemistry solutions – for example biobased plastics like PHA, new manufacturing technologies such as mobile bioreactors and separations technologies, or new scientific tools such as synthetic biology and rational design – that if scaled could be game changing in accelerating green chemistry. The investment community will also have to slow or stop investments in incumbent problematic chemicals with which the innovative green chemistry solutions cannot often compete.

CWR: Finally, what’s your vision and hopes for the chemical industry and in the short- and long-term? 

JT: There are clear market and policy signals for safer, more sustainable chemicals and products.  And we built the global chemical industry literally overnight which means that we could build it very differently if we choose to.  Given the massive investments in the economy post-COVID and to address the climate, crisis there is a once in a generation opportunity to rethink the chemical industry for sustainability. The European Green Deal, with its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and chemical industry transition roadmap will push policy globally and the European chemical industry is recognizing the converging challenges of toxicity, plastic waste, and climate change that it will have to confront.

There is a once generation opportunity to rethink chemicals industry for sustainability…

…transition requires 5 key conversion strategies

In our Environment Magazine articles we note that this transition will require five key conversion strategies: an energy transition; feedstock substitution, molecular redesign, production process redesign, and downstream product redesign. Many of these transitions are already starting. But we have to view this as a 20-30 year endeavour with short and long term objectives.

The good news, as I always tell my students, is that these are human made problems, which have solutions.  We need to be sure though that any transitions are done thoughtfully and with a clear roadmap that minimizes potential trade-offs to communities, workers, and industrializing countries.

I’ve been working in the area of green chemistry for 15 years now and over the past five to seven years, I’ve seen a significant acceleration in both the imperative for green chemistry but also in the willingness of the chemical industry, downstream manufacturers and retailers, and others to collaborate to solve chemistry challenges in a pre-competitive space. I’m optimistic that with the right leadership and commitment we can make significant strides over the next 5-10 years in growing that supply.

Further Reading

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