MacGyver wouldn’t approve of the so-called innovation principle
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MacGyver wouldn’t approve of the so-called Innovation Principle

By Anne-Sofie Andersson

MacGyver was one of my favourite shows in the ‘90s. Not only was the actor Richard Dean Anderson quite charming, but being a science nerd, I much enjoyed his constant flow of new inventions.

Who knew that you could go head-to-head with a band of guerrilla fighters using a paperclip, a used ear swab and a can of lighter fluid? Or create a homemade bazooka out of a muffler, shooting out a vintage gear knob!

Innovation was on everyones’ lips last week following a vote in the EU Parliament that ushered in the so-called Innovation Principle for the first time in an official EU text.

At a glance – the Innovation Principle looks great. I mean, who doesn’t like innovation? It’s only when you look a bit closer at it – just like Corporate Europe Observatory have done – that the cracks start to appear.

“Looking at many of the company names behind the campaign, they don’t immediately strike me as companies known for their MacGyverism”

Long story short: Behind the campaign pushing to introduce the Innovation Principle is a Brussels based lobby group called ERF which was funded by the likes of Chevron, BASF, Philip Morris, Bayer to name a few – basically companies whose product portfolios are often targeted by environmental legislation.

Those opposing this new principle fears it will be used to trump the EU’s better-be-safe-than-sorry principle – the Precautionary Principle – which is in place to make sure that potentially harmful products are not put on the market.

In my opinion, this fear is not uncalled for. Looking at many of the company names behind the campaign, they don’t immediately strike me as companies known for their MacGyverism (read: being innovative and progressive) in the environmental and sustainability area.

One area in great need of innovation is toxic chemicals and substitution, as many current industry solutions are not innovative at all.

Take the chemical Bisphenol A (BPA) for example (somewhat ironically first flagged in the EU due to the Precautionary Principle). Nowadays, BPA is often replaced by the structurally similar BPS, which unfortunately seems to share toxic properties with its cousin BPA.

Changing BPA to BPS is not exactly Nobel Prize level of chemistry. Some slight changes to the original structure – and boom – you have a “new”, market-ready product. It’s actually very similar to how regulation always seems to be one step behind new “party drugs”. Legislation only targets one specific chemical structure, so all you have to do is change it slightly and you are in the clear.

It’s the same with many perflourinated compounds currently undergoing scrutiny in the US because of its presence in drinking water. Unsurprisingly, the alternatives are structurally very similar and experts fear that they are just as toxic.

“The Innovation Principle sounds more like a Business-As-Usual Principle”

This is not innovation.

Innovation is creating receipts without phenol-based chemistry.

Innovation is wood protection without the need of biocides or heavy metals.

Innovation is to provide a chrome finish without using hexavalent chromium.

Something all these innovations have in common is that they are new environmentally sound techniques replacing old toxic ones.

These new innovations also have a tough time getting onto the market since many of them are more expensive than traditional methods – methods that are many times used by the companies now lobbying for the Innovation Principle.

So, to me the Innovation Principle sounds more like a Business-As-Usual Principle – a tool to even further solidify the market shares of companies currently owning them, rather than to promote any actual innovation.

There’s a widespread misconception that environmental legislation such as the Precautionary Principle is an unnecessary burden holding industry back, which in turn threatens jobs, tax money and the livelihoods of more or less every European citizen. It is also obstructing a lot of great innovations.

But it’s actually the other way around. The truth is that environmental legislation does not stifle innovation, a fact that has been proven many times throughout history. By regulating toxic chemicals, policy makers can help drive such innovations mentioned above onto the market.

So in that sense, we actually already have a perfectly working innovation principle – it’s called the Precautionary Principle. If you would like to stimulate innovation: use it more.

Anne-Sofie Andersson
Anne-Sofie Andersson
Executive Director, ChemSec