A person working for one of the world’s largest chemical companies once told me that even though they are continuously developing alternatives to best-selling chemicals, they do not actively market an alternative until over 40 percent of the customer base starts asking for it. Just like companies in other industries, chemical companies put money into R&D departments and try to stay prepared for market shifts or upcoming legal changes. If emerging legislation targets your product portfolio you naturally want to be ready to roll out a green-lit alternative the day it hits.
This potentially means that a large number of alternatives to hazardous chemicals already exist within the world’s chemical companies – primed and ready for the day when that 40-percent threshold is breached.
For some of the globe’s most well known corporations and brands the lack of visibility of these alternatives is not an issue. Their sheer size makes it a lucrative prospect for a chemical producer to work in tandem and develop chemicals tailored especially for their products. That’s what has happened in the textile industry for example. Many of the PFC-free garments that are now available are the result of such collaborations between brands and chemical producers.
But what about the smaller players, what about the SMEs that lack the production volumes to make them an attractive collaboration partner? They are out there, and they are getting increasingly more vocal.
The issue of safe alternatives to hazardous chemicals is definitely on the rise. It’s not just a passing trend. Instead of spending energy on defending the use of hazardous chemicals, many large corporations are proactively substituting problematic substances even before legislation requires them do so, while also being open about how strict chemicals legislation can benefit them.
“Instead of spending energy on defending the use of hazardous chemicals, many large corporations are proactively substituting problematic substances even before legislation requires them do so”
Chemical Watch recently published its second edition of the Business Guide to Safer Chemicals, in which the topic of safe alternatives was a recurring theme throughout the publication. A couple of weeks ago The Guardian arranged a conference on Green Chemistry in the USA for the second year in a row. Even investors want to get in on the action. The exciting new Safer Made initiative is set up like a venture capital fund that invests in high-potential companies and technologies that can replace hazardous chemicals.
Everywhere I go companies ask me about alternatives to hazardous chemicals. “Where can I find them?” they ask. I recall one person at a recent meeting dubbing safe alternatives “the Holy Grail of chemicals management” with the rest of the audience nodding their heads in agreement.
Still, even though there’s a clear demand (the fact that potential customers are comparing your product to a chalice used by Jesus is as clear a sign of a market opportunity as you will ever get!), there seems to be a void between buyers and sellers in the chemical marketplace.
Sure, there might not be 40 percent who are actively asking for safer chemistry, but I believe that is because most downstream users don’t know this safer chemistry exists. You don’t go into the shoe store asking for shoes you’ve never seen or heard of. Or maybe you do, but most of us don’t, at least not 40 percent of us. We buy a pair on the shelf and go about our business. It’s the same with chemicals (and all other products for that matter).
At ChemSec we are doing our bit to connect all people interested in alternatives to hazardous chemicals. Early next year we will launch our online marketplace, which will be a meeting point for buyers and sellers of alternatives. We like to compare it to eBay or Airbnb, the only difference is that instead of searching for a two-bedroom apartment in Paris, you search for a non-halogenated flame retardant, for example. And we know that there are a lot of innovative companies out there with ideas that were not always developed with the chemical sector in mind. That’s why ChemSec’s Marketplace will not only include chemical alternatives, but also processes, materials or new techniques that replaces the need for chemicals altogether.
Besides answering the demand, the Marketplace hopes to take care of another annoyance experienced by downstream users of chemicals: bilateral deals. Companies don’t want to ask chemical producers for possible alternatives to each and every substance of concern they might be dealing with. “We have over 100 substances that we are considering to substitute. Show me what you got!” one company representative told me.
The marketplace has already generated great interest from all kinds of stakeholders in the chemicals arena. So if you’re either looking for a safe alternative to a toxic chemical, or if you are able to provide a product that fulfills this criterion, ChemSec’s marketplace will be a very good place to start.
Next year will be big for alternatives, of that I’m 100 percent sure.