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To Create Cleaner Chemistry, Focus on Function, Says New Study

When creating cleaner chemistry, don’t fall into the trap of replacing one toxic substance with another similar but equally hazardous one, says Safer Made, a venture capital fund that invests in safer products and innovations.  

That happened a few years ago with bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical in canned food and certain plastics that was revealed to be an endocrine disruptor. In the midst of the kerfuffle, manufacturers scrambled to replace it with a similar compound, known as bisphenol-s (BPS), that wasn’t yet on the public’s radar. The only problem? It too triggers estrogenic activity, which meant that so-called “BPA-free” products that contained BPS were no less dangerous to human health. 

Such “regrettable substitutions” happen all the time, according to a new report by the company. More often than not, chemists or engineers who are tasked with finding alternatives will suss out compounds that are similar in structure and impact.

One solution, the report noted, is to lead by function. Instead of seeking out specific analogs for chemicals of concern, hone in on delivering the same function, just better and more safely.

“We believe that the solutions to safer chemistry challenges are quite often new materials and processes that deliver new performance characteristics,” Safer Made explained in the report, which was commissioned by the innovation platform Fashion for Good. “It offers an efficient means to reorient chemicals management—from the risk management focus on single chemicals, to evaluating the best options to deliver specific functions.”

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There are many business advantages to shifting to better chemistry, the venture capital fund suggested. One is the industry’s pivot toward a circular economy, where materials are designed to be recycled or degraded into biological nutrients. Companies that don’t make the change will likely lose any competitive advantage when this new era dawns.

“Safer chemistry innovation and new materials provide positive narratives that resonate with consumers and build brand loyalty,” Safer Made said.  

At the same time, consumers are weighing the chemical profiles of their products with increasing scrutiny, not to mention an awareness that is only growing.

“Many consumers have also become aware of the impacts of the textile apparel sector, starting with outdoor enthusiasts, and including sports and fashion,” Safer Made said. “Social media and online shopping have accelerated this awareness, and consumers are increasingly looking for brands and products that reflect their values.”

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that retailers seem to be especially cognizant of this issue. In 2017 alone, Best Buy, Costco, CVS, Home Depot, Target and Walmart all drafted new or updated chemical policies, most of which banned certain classes of chemicals, set goals and targets for other chemicals and held the retailers and their suppliers to high standards of transparency.

Even so, potentially toxic chemicals still abound, such the aforementioned bisphenols (BPA and BPS) in epoxy resins, phthalates in polyvinyl chloride (PVC), isocyanates in polyurethane and polyfluorinated coatings. Although the dearth of significant materials innovations since polyester in the 1950s is partly to blame, this state of affairs could also be blessing in disguise since companies like Bolt Threads, Lenzing, Pinatex and Re:newcell are engaged with remedying the situation, creating hitherto unknown materials literally out of whole cloth.

“The industry is hungry for new materials with new performance characteristics,” it said. “The need for materials innovation provides the opportunity to adopt new materials that perform better and are safer, and to design safer manufacturing processes.”

But bringing new safer technologies to market isn’t effort-free; it requires both collaboration and capital, according to Safer Made.

“Brands and retailers participate in the innovation ecosystem by: partnering with innovative companies to jointly develop and scale safer chemistry and materials; engaging with accelerators and incubators; and investing in innovative companies or venture capital funds,” it said in the report.

Still, Safer Made says it’s optimistic.

“The textile and apparel industry will change dramatically over the next 10 years. It will adopt new materials that deliver unprecedented performance and will eliminate harmful chemicals from its products and manufacturing processes,” it said. “The industry will emerge as a circular and regenerative sector of the economy.”