10 Strategies for Identifying Safer Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals in Your Products

by Joanna Malaczynski

EcoValuate has spent nearly a year talking to companies, non-profits, and regulators regarding hazardous chemicals, safer alternatives, and green chemistry. We learned that most companies are craving information about safer alternatives to chemicals of concern in their products. We have identified ten strategies for identifying safer alternatives. I have roughly ordered these suggestions from potentially the simplest to most complex, although there are always exceptions. You may find inspiration in this list regardless of whether you are new to green chemistry/sustainability or whether you are a seasoned professional. And you may want to try a combination of these strategies. Do keep in mind that greening your products is an ongoing and iterative process. Contact us if you would like additional information about any strategy and the resources available to you:

AA Process for Blog

1. Conduct an alternatives analysis. First, get clear on what your chemical of concern is doing for you and what performance specifications must be met by your alternative. Then consider other options based on factors important to you, likely including each alternative’s performance, hazards & risks, life-cycle sustainability, and cost & availability. Even a quick qualitative check on these factors can help you focus on what you want and make a solid determination on what options would work best for you. A deeper dive may reveal options and strategies you never considered. You may not be able to find a solution overnight, but conducting such an analysis will lead you on the path toward a desirable outcome.

2. Check the store shelves. What are your competitors doing? Do some reconnaissance. Buy some competitors’ products and test them out. Compare ingredients. Who is using simpler and more natural ingredients? Who is using more complex and synthetic ingredients? What seem to be the benefits and drawbacks of these strategies? Also do not underestimate small companies, who can be the most innovative in the realm of green products. Even if their particular strategy does not work for you as a result of cost, volume or other factors, let them be an inspiration for you in approaching potential solutions.

3. Ask suppliers for what you want, rather than focusing on what you don’t want. When working with suppliers, you can get to green faster if you focus on the qualities of chemicals, materials, and components that you want. While a red or black list of chemicals can be helpful, there is no guarantee that a substitute will be any less hazardous or meet any of your other needs. Framing your needs in terms of what you want can help suppliers identify the right options for you much faster, and strengthen your supply chain relationships.

4. Alt Strategy BundlesYour best alternative may not be a chemical. It is good to step back and think more broadly about your chemical of concern—asking fundamental questions about what it is doing for you, why you need it in the first place, and whether it can be eliminated in whole or in part through a design, manufacturing, or process change. Maybe you wouldn’t need that adhesive if the product used a system of physical fasteners. Maybe you wouldn’t need that preservative if your ingredients were filtered first. Maybe you could sand a certain component rather than using a solvent. Be honest about the costs of these options—but also of their long-term benefits.

5. Develop your contacts list of green suppliers. On occasion you might run into an article about a new green product or technology. Or maybe you go to a trade show or conference and see something innovative. Even if you do not have a particular use for what you saw, even if it seems out of your price range, or even if it is not market-ready, make it a habit to develop a contact list for the supplier or originator of what you saw. You never know when circumstances may change. In addition, reviewing your green contacts list can help spur other ideas and approaches for your product.

6. Connect with certification programs. Certification programs can be a great way to get safer alternatives into your products. These are frequently non-profits with expertise in both chemical hazards and greener chemicals. They may be able to share success stories with you from companies working with similar challenges. They also offer independent review of your potential suppliers to ensure that the components and chemicals you buy are free of some of the greatest chemicals of concern in the marketplace or for your industry.

7. Collaborate with other industries to find safer chemicals with same functionality. A tremendous amount of chemicals—both safe and less safe—are used across a number of industries for very similar applications in what on their face appear to be very different products. For example, a certain chemical found in a plastic coating on shoes may also appear in a plastic coating on electronics. As a result, there are many companies out there who face very similar challenges. Reach out to them; you may learn more than you expect, and may be able to pool resources or purchasing power to find the substitute solution you need.

8. Look for analogies in other industries. You may find that other industries are using an alternative you have not considered, but which will meet your needs. Similarly, some companies report successfully phasing a toxic chemical out of their product by searching for safer alternatives with comparable functionality in other industries and applications. Do not limit your search to chemicals—again, the solution you need may involve a design, manufacturing, or process change.

9. Look to nature. The growing and exciting field of biomimicry—that is, mimicking the approaches to functionality used in nature—can be a wonderful source of solutions for you. Companies have applied their observations of nature to leapfrog technologies, find greener and cleaner solutions, and significantly slash their production costs. Biomimicry can be complex, but it also can be surprisingly simple. A number of small companies working on a shoestring budget have developed successful commercial products based on biomimicry principles. Biomimicry non-profits, private consultants, and companies successfully implementing biomimicry techniques are all useful resources for you.  A great place to start is the biomimicry database at www.asknature.org.

10. Assess the personality of your chemicals from a green chemistry perspective. Chemicals have personalities. Some seek out the company of other chemicals, while some prefer to spend time by themselves, for example. A growing aspect of the green chemistry field focuses on the natural characteristics of chemicals and applies that information to create and select the right chemical formulation for your product. It might turn out that a less volatile chemical formulation would be more suitable for you. Or one that is less likely to be confused by the human body as a nutrient to be absorbed, rather than a non-nutrient to be expelled.