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.
"Companies are broadening their perspective," he says. "It's not just how to get lead out of toys but how to eliminate hazards across the lifecycle."
Nike, which recently committed to a goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals associated with its supply chain and product lifecycles, plans to release action plan details by mid-October.
John Frazier, Nike's director of considered chemistry for more than ten years, leads a team of chemists and scientists focused on corporate product stewardship. Programs he has developed, deployed and overseen at Nike include its Restricted Substance List, Sustainable Chemistry Guidance, Global Water Quality Program and Greener Chemistry Program.
Nike also works with Brown and Wilmanns Environmental LLC (BWE), a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based consulting firm that develops sustainability strategies for business, government and NGOs. BWE helped develop the environmentally preferred materials portion of the Nike Considered Index, a tool for evaluating the predicted environmental footprint of a product prior to commercialization.
Getting The Whole Picture
"One of the things we really emphasize is thinking about materials and products on a lifecycle basis," says Michael S. Brown, a BWE principal. For example, he notes, a soda bottle may be recyclable but we also should consider the impact of its manufacturing process on the environment.
Brown, whose firm has worked with dozens of clients over the past decade, has seen growing interest by corporations in evaluating suppliers' environmental claims. He says this is being driven in part by the Federal Trade Commission's Green Guides revisions that are pushing manufacturers to be more specific about "green" claims and have data to back it up.