Over the last decade, corporate sustainability pioneers have made strides in addressing the ways the private sector thinks about the environment.
Most of the progress has been in energy efficiency, renewables, and reducing the use of natural resources. In many cases, it was easy to convince those in the C-suite that these efforts would save money. Consumer companies set goals, measured footprints, and made their headquarters green. Logistics providers optimized shipping routes to reduce carbon emissions, and utilities incorporated renewables into their power mixes. Companies like Microsoft put a price on their use of carbon, and retailers reduced bulky packaging.
But now that the low hanging fruit is gone, there’s a second wave of harder problems now that companies still haven’t figured out how to tackle. One of the most worrying involves green chemistry and toxic materials in consumer products. What does this mean for you? New skill sets will be needed to rise to the challenge, and pursuing a career in this off-the-beaten-path field could be a great way to make a name for yourself in a tough job market.
The truth is, we are fumbling in the dark when it comes to understanding how chemicals in everyday items impact human health and the environment. Aside from the scare over BPA in the mid-2000s, the majority of consumers remain uninformed about the potential for widespread exposure to toxins. Compared to other areas in science, green chemistry is simply understudied considering the scale of human exposure. Cosmetics alone will be a $265 billion market in three years, estimates research firm Lucitel—but we barely know what effect those products have on our health in the long term.
For soil, water, and air, there are at least toxicity standards backed by 40 years of science that are widely accepted. Not so for consumer products. What are those weird smells from plastic baggies doing to your endocrine system? Are our shampoos, soaps, and lotions truly safe for humans and the environment? What happens when medications pass through our bodies, end up in oceans and rivers, and eventually, find their way to the fish on our kids’ dinner plates?
At last year’s Sustainable Brands conference, I shared a cab with the head of sustainability for a major cosmetics company who lamented the fact that even if companies like his made a strong push to limit harmful compounds in their products, there’s still no firm understanding of how any of the so-called safer chemicals might interact with each other to form toxic byproducts. There’s also no roadmap for the “right way” to make a safe product, even if we fully understood how to limit unsafe chemicals.
Some companies tout the incorporation of bamboo or corn in their packaging and disposable products. But look closer: Have these minor upgrades just been a decoy for a deeper understanding of the toxics in so-called eco products? Can that “green” plastic cup made from corn really be recycled or composted, or is it just a little bit better because it’s not made from petroleum? How does mixing corn with other polymers affect the human reproductive system?
There is a nascent movement to address these questions as leaders like GoodGuide, Walmart, Target, Whole Foods, Method, and Steelcase begin to acknowledge materials chemistry in products they make and purchase. Just like we saw with carbon emissions, the first step will be measurement and disclosure. This is admirable work, but soon we will need business leaders and scientists to come together to figure out how to take action. My guess is that many more people will be trying to solve the green chemicals equation in the near future.
So, what can aspiring sustainability professionals do about these issues? First, we need to better understand them. Going back to school? It might be great timing to study chemistry, since this issue will likely have mainstream momentum in three to five years. Want to be your own boss or have an idea to solve one of these problems? Startups that can address safer consumer products could see increased funding or even acquisition in the near future as corporations scramble to figure out how to handle it. Work for a chemical or consumer products company? Think about the risks to your core business model if these issues aren’t anticipated. Frustrated with corporate execs who don’t think this is important? Go put your smarts to work for another company that does.
Anticipating the future isn’t just green, it’s smart business. And, increasingly, a career opportunity.
- Environmental Working Group
- Target’s Partnership With GoodGuide
- Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too
- The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry
- Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute
Photo of plastic bottles courtesy of Shutterstock.
TopicsGoing Green , Career Paths , Exploring Career Paths , Syndication , The Real Green by Emily Chan
Emily Chan is a sustainability strategist based in San Francisco with ten years of experience in non-profit management, corporate strategy, and consulting. She advises executives at Fortune 500s in the tech, utility, and consumer products sectors on sustainability and is an Advisory Board member at SXSWEco.More from this Author