We can look into the future – this is how we do it

News 2016 / May

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We can look into the future – this is how we do it

“A little over a year ago I was on the stage in Davos, standing in front of the CEOs of the largest chemical companies in the world. I was invited to speak at the International Council of Chemicals Associations in connection with the World Economic Forum. Chair after chair, filled with suits and important men. I had been practising my speech and I was well prepared. Still – I’ll admit it – I was a bit nervous. It’s not the sort of place where you would normally expect an environmental NGO that is advocating strict chemicals legislation to be invited. It’s a bit like having a vegan as a keynote speaker at a butchers’ summit. On top of that I was the only woman in the room, which added yet another dimension to my out-of-placeness.

Still, considering all these outside factors I was feeling very confident, because I knew I was going to talk about one of the things ChemSec knows best ­– the future of chemicals. Ever since we opened up back in 2002 we have always been asked by companies to tell them which chemicals to look out for. In 2008, the SIN List sprung from this idea: To give companies a tool that shows which chemicals are likely to be regulated in the future. Prior to the SIN List it was very hard to get information on which hazardous chemicals to start phasing out. Since then the SIN List has had around 10,000 unique users per year who are seeking information about chemicals. But we’ve also had our share of non-believers. People who scoffed at the SIN List, claiming that it’s nothing to pay attention to. But in hindsight it turns out we were right. 94 per cent of the substances on the Candidate List today were on the SIN List first. 94 per cent! So we can predict the future and we will continue doing so.

So how do we do it? Well, one of my key points during my speech in Davos was that it is the anticipation of regulation that drives innovation. To demonstrate why this statement is absolutely true I’m going to give you an example. Think of the shiny, silver parts of your car and your water taps, for example. To get that shine, as well as preventing corrosion, they are all chrome-plated. The chemical used in the immersion baths is called hexavalent chromium (or chromium VI or chromium trioxide). It is very toxic and, statistically, causes fatal lung cancer in 1 of every 1,000 workers and in 1 of every 10,000 people living close to the factories. The European-wide chemical legislation REACH is now restricting its use further. In April 2013 the chemical was put on the so-called authorisation list, with a sunset date of September 2017, which means that its production and use is prohibited unless authorisation for certain applications is granted to applicants.

“If Europe bans the use of this chemical, all companies will move to China”. But time and time again we see that this is not the case.

Currently, over 150 companies have handed over a joint application asking for such authorisation (which statistically works out at around 1,500 (!) fatal cancers if granted). But since around the time this chemical started to gain attention among downstream users, NGOs and decision makers, and was later added to the authorisation list, we have seen a favourable trend: Small European companies with new ideas and products fit for the future are starting to flourish, increase sales and hire people. German company jobaTEC, Swiss Oerlikon, Italian Green Coat and Finnish Savroc, among others, have all developed technology that negates the need for hexavalent chromium.

When there are discussions about regulating hazardous chemicals you always hear the same arguments from the industry lobby. If I’m allowed to paraphrase a bit, it sounds something like: “If Europe bans the use of this chemical, all companies will move to China”. But time and time again we see that this is not the case. Instead, when chemicals are put on the authorisation list, companies like jobaTEC, Oerlikon, Green Coat and Savroc start innovating.

The anticipation of regulation drives innovation.

To me this is a question of what kind of companies we want to build the future of the European economy on. Should we reduce the “burden” of chemicals legislation in order to accommodate laggards, or, should we keep enforcing progressive legislation that promotes innovation and producers of safe alternatives?

Since my speech in Davos we have had visits from a number of the largest chemical producers, flying in to hear our opinion on their sustainability efforts, asking us to predict the future. This is something we will absolutely continue doing, and I encourage all companies, whether they are producers of chemicals or downstream users, to be transparent about what’s in their products, because that is increasingly important to a number of people, not to mention investors.

This week we also launched our new website, which feels like a fresh outlook for what’s going on in the world of chemicals. A lot of things are new, but not our aim to look into the future and change it for the better. We will continue doing so, and I hope you will too.”

Anne-Sofie Andersson ChemSec

Anne-Sofie Andersson
ChemSec Director