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Are you climbing Mount Everest, or just going to work?

Chemical Industry

Are you climbing Mount Everest, or just going to work?

Published on 24 Oct 2022

I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the importance of chemical substitution at different meetings and conferences, and pretty much heard all the arguments.

But one thing I heard an industry rep say recently that really stuck to my mind was that “substitutes shall only be accepted if they have the exact same performance”.

“Oh my God”, I thought to myself. With this way of thinking, no chemical will ever be substituted.

Many companies view performance and functionality as something sacred, and to intentionally lower the performance of a product is completely out of the question. “Our customers expect this level of performance and functionality from our products”, companies often argue.

Well, perhaps that’s true. But even if they expect their normal everyday raincoat to have a water-repellent function, they do not assume they should be able to climb Mount Everest with it.

And they certainly do not expect the jacket to contain toxic chemicals.

Unfortunately, gear used to climb high mountains often contain PFAS but, hopefully, these toxic chemicals can soon be phased out from these high-performance products as well.

“Many companies view performance and functionality as something sacred”

Even so, I believe that if you would present them with two options: Either a water-repellent jacket that contains PFAS but is capable to summit the world’s tallest peaks with, or a water-repellent jacket that does not contain toxic chemicals and performs just fine in normal rainy conditions, the customers would choose the latter.

But, as a consumer you’re not presented with this choice. Instead, the companies make the call for you without informing you about the presence of toxic chemicals. Moreover, they often make the wrong choice — performance over safety.

From a company’s perspective, however, it’s not always about performance — sometimes it’s a matter of functionality.

If we stick to the PFAS example then a company may have a viable safer alternative available to them but it lacks one of the functions that the PFAS chemical has. Instead of being both water and stain-repellent, the product would only be water-repellent with the safer alternative.

Is this really such a bad bargain, especially considering that people are concerned about the effects of harmful chemicals?

“The consumer has the right to know if something contains toxic chemicals”

According to a 2020 survey by the EU Commission, as many as 85% of European citizens are worried about how chemicals affect their health and even more (90%) are worried about chemicals in the environment.

However, the problem is that consumers aren’t aware that everyday consumer items frequently contain hazardous substances.

So what needs to be done, you ask? Well, first of all, companies need to be much more transparent towards customers regarding the chemical content in their products. Awareness build trust, and the consumer has the right to know if something contains toxic chemicals.

And instead of letting functionality dictate the product design process, companies should first look at what substances not to use and from there try to achieve the desired function and performance — not the other way around.

Sure, this means that the appearance and function may be a bit different from how it was before — at least initially — but safety needs to come first. If it’s not safe, it’s not an option.

To circle back to the beginning, it’s time to stop staring ourselves blind at performance and functionality and start looking towards safety and real-life consumer needs.

After all, most of us are not trying to summit the world’s tallest mountain.

Sidsel Dyekjær
Chemicals Policy Advisor at ChemSec

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