By Jerilyn Klein Bier
What do office products provider Staples, athletic apparel manufacturer Nike, and food and beverage producer PepsiCo have in common? They're among a growing number of companies soliciting scientific advice to help reduce risk and stay competitive in the global economy.
Long relegated to chemical, pharmaceutical and other science-based businesses, in-house and outsourced scientists are now being sought out more frequently by companies outside the science sector as they tackle environmental and social challenges.
"Corporations are recognizing the value of science advisors to inform decision-making when science and business intersect," says Roger McFadden, vice president and senior scientist with Staples Advantage, Staples' business-to-business division. "There is a growing awareness by business leaders of the important role that science plays in business today."
McFadden, a chemist and product design engineer for several product manufacturing companies during his early career, informs Staples' key decision makers about the risks (health, environmental, reputational, etc.) associated with chemicals of high concern and how other companies are approaching the assessment and selection of safer alternatives.
As a result, Staples has stopped using thermal register receipts coated in Bisphenol A, eliminated endocrine-disrupting nonylphenol ethoxylates from its own brand cleaning supplies, and uses PVC-free packaging materials for its own brands.
McFadden, a frequent speaker and charter member of the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3), also shares environmental solutions information with Staples' business clients.
McFadden expects more companies to turn to science advisors for matters related to the environment, health, safety, supply chain, materials selection, product design, product lifecycle assessment, alternatives assessment, and sustainability.
GC3, a business-to-business forum founded in 2005 to advance green chemistry, has received growing interest by non-science entities, says founder and director Joel Tickner. Its nearly 60 members include such companies as Staples, Nike, retailers Wal-Mart Stores and Target, and office furniture manufacturer Steelcase.
"It's a safe place for companies to talk to each other or for suppliers to talk with purchasers," says Tickner, also program director of the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Tickner has observed an increase in scientific staff over the past five years at traditional consumer product companies, though he notes most retailers still outsource this function.