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If you think you know what sustainability is – you probably don't


If you think you know what sustainability is – you probably don’t

Published on 14 May 2020

Sustainability – a strong contender for being the most contemporary cliché out there. The extensive use of the word sustainable and versions thereof has diluted the expression to the point where it’s hard to understand what the word really means. There are probably more views on this topic than there are on the Swedish Covid-19 strategy.

This chaos of definitions, a sort of wild wild west world where anything goes, is surely very confusing to most people. And not only that, it also opens up doors to misuse the term in order to greenwash products, companies and policies – painting them greener than they actually are.

So, how did all this get started?

The concept of sustainability was introduced in the 1970s and the roots can be traced to different sources, with proposed origins from an ecology aspect, an environment aspect, or an aversion towards technological advances.

“I think we can all agree that true sustainability isn’t about one or two things”

Today, most of us associate sustainability with environmental capacity, meaning that we need to consider the capability of our environment – resources, biodiversity, energy consumption, etc. – when making decisions.

A great take on this holistic approach are the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the SDGs) connected to energy, water, resources, ecology and health. For example, SDG7 relates to sustainable energy, whereas SDG6 covers water issues and SDG13 talks about climate action. All 17 of them bring an important piece to the complete sustainability picture.

Ok, at this point, I think we can all agree that true sustainability isn’t about one or two things.

A pair of jeans aren’t sustainable just because they are made from organic cotton, that only means that the cotton was produced without the use of pesticides. The amount of water being used is, for example, not considered. This doesn’t stop many manufacturers of organic cotton jeans from branding them as sustainable though. But as we just learned with the SDGs, true sustainability needs to consider several factors.

Chemicals, however, can perhaps be called a hidden factor since they do not have a specific SDG. Instead, chemicals are a vital part of many SDGs, such as:

SDG3 – Good health and well-being

Hazardous chemicals are, by default, a threat to human health and well-being.

SDG6 – Clean water and sanitation

Many industrial processes require water treatments that are heavily dependent on added chemicals, which in many cases are hazardous. To pollute our waters is not sustainable.

SDG9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure

To achieve sustainability, and a toxic-free circular economy, industry cannot keep using hazardous chemicals in products. These chemicals need to be removed from the product loop.

SDG11 – Sustainable cities and communities

Buildings require a lot of material, and materials require a lot of chemicals. Many of the ones used today are hazardous. In order to have sustainable cities, the use of hazardous chemicals must be discontinued.

SDG12 – Responsible consumption and production

The inclusion of hazardous chemicals in products has been ongoing ever since the industrialisation. Today, the knowledge of hazardous properties, even though it is far from complete, is much more comprehensive than before. Despite this, hazardous chemicals still play a large part in the production of the majority of our products. In light of this, we are still far away from “responsible consumption and production” when it comes to hazardous chemicals.

SDG14 – Life below water, and SDG15 – Life on land

We need to make sure that no hazardous chemicals leak out into our environment, interfering with wildlife and depleting the natural biodiversity.

Therefore, as we can see above, chemicals play a vital role in the sustainability puzzle – and the importance of non-hazardous chemicals connected to sustainability cannot be underestimated.

“This means that there are, undeniably, products that are labelled ‘sustainable’ even though they contain hazardous chemicals”

Still, there are many different chemical concepts that cloud the sustainability sky. Apart from sustainable chemistry, we have green chemistry, sustainable chemicals, safer alternatives, safer chemistry, non-toxic chemicals…

There are many different ways to describe similar solutions, again, leading to confusion and a potential for greenwashing.

So, in this cloud of confusion, where can one find some steady ground?

For ChemSec, a fundamental part of chemicals is that they are safe. But what does safe mean? Safe refers to the intrinsic hazard properties of a chemical – in other words, if the chemical is toxic or not. The advantage of focusing on the intrinsic properties is that we can be certain that a non-toxic chemical will always be safe, independent of its use.

In many cases, the use of hazardous chemicals in products are given a thumbs up when the risk of that use is considered negligible. This means that there are, undeniably, products that are labelled “sustainable” even though they contain hazardous chemicals. Pretty crazy, right? I think most people agree with me when I say that this is not sustainable.

A good example are the PFAS chemicals used in Teflon pans. In this case, PFAS are definitely toxic chemicals, but some manufacturers claim that this isn’t a problem because PFAS only leak from the pan when it gets really hot. Yeah, a hot frying pan, what a crazy idea…

Another example of what I would call greenwashing is to play with the prevalent misconception that “natural” or “organic” is always better. In the chemical world, this happens via claims that a chemical is sustainable because it’s made from renewable resources. This claim has been made for DEHP, which is still one of the most hazardous phthalates regardless if it is being produced from a renewable resource or not. Due to its intrinsic hazard properties, DEHP will always be toxic – no matter if it is being produced by oil or sugarcanes as feedstock.

Yet another example is how textiles treated with PFAS are called sustainable because they do not require as many washes to look clean. This saves water, sure, but it also puts PFAS chemicals in our waters – which, of course, isn’t sustainable.

In short, sustainability requires safer chemicals. And with that you now know a little bit more about true sustainability.

Dr. Jonatan Kleimark
Senior Chemicals and Business Advisor

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