ChemSec works to eliminate toxic chemicals in products by engaging with companies and policymakers across cultures, industries and governments; ED Anne-Sofie Bäckar says trust, transparency — and sometimes, keeping things light — are key.
ChemSec — the International Chemical Secretariat — is an independent non-profit organization that advocates for substitution of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives. It operates globally to facilitate contact between decision makers, companies and research in the fight against hazardous chemicals; advocates for progressive legislation and sustainable corporate chemicals management; and offers guidance to companies committed to changing the way they work with chemicals.
Created in Sweden in 2002, the goal was to highlight the good chemical-management practices taking place, to collaborate with different companies and to share the outcomes with political decisionmakers. As part of Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program, Shaw’s VP of Global Sustainability and Innovation, Kellie Ballew, recently spoke with ChemSec Executive Director Anne-Sofie Bäckar about the organization’s efforts.
KB: In the 20 years you’ve been working at this, influencing political leaders, how has the sustainability landscape changed or evolved? What challenges do we still face?
ASB: A lot has changed. 20 years ago, sustainability was not really mentioned — it was hardly spoken about and was considered unimportant; maybe it was discussed on the lower rungs of a company’s hierarchy. That has changed dramatically. Today, sustainability is at the forefront and even is represented at the Board level. It’s a very positive change.
It’s being discussed politically, though I think the term ‘sustainability’ is often overused; and the definition is not clear. So, we still need to better define what is ‘sustainable.’ From the investors’ perspective, they hardly cared about sustainability back then. Today, they care about biodiversity, climate change and chemicals. And that is what is important to us — that chemicals are part of sustainability.
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At ChemSec, we know that if a product contains hazardous chemicals, you cannot consider that sustainable. For example, chemicals causing cancer or infertility — we could never see that as sustainable.
KB: Material health or chemistry messages can be quite complex. How have you all aimed to simplify or bring people into what can be an intimidating conversation?
ASB: One way is through humor. Our creative teams have done a great job with a series of YouTube videos — such as one about the SIN List, which portrays chemicals as people meeting up in a pub and trying to go to a club together.
It’s a serious subject, and we take a very scientific approach to our work; but we also recognize that we have to capture our audiences’ attention and effectively communicate how, in this instance, hazardous chemicals can ruin a product.
KB: Collaboration also has been key for ChemSec’s success, but collaboration across cultures, geographies, industries and governments is not easy. What do you see as the keys to successful collaboration?
ASB: First, the goal is to get a core group of people who are really interested and positive and want to work on this. Second is openness — we need companies who are willing to share their problems with chemicals and the possible solutions. Our members learn from other members, even if they are in different sectors. They realize they all share the same problems. Openness is important to drive collaboration forward. And, third, you need a clear focus for what you’re collaborating on. There may be many different opinions — and we can’t collaborate on those. So, it’s important to decide what you can do to advance.
KB: What advice would you give to others who are looking to have a positive impact and looking to collaborate?
ASB: For ChemSec, the important thing is trust — that we are trustworthy and that the information we provide is trustworthy. Be open to sharing — what worked and what didn’t work. Also, seek ways to contribute.
KB: What is next for ChemSec?
ASB: I think it’s important we start talking about the triple planetary crisis — the links between climate and pollution (and, within that, chemicals) and biodiversity. You can get overwhelmed with all the problems, so we need a positive vision: “Here is where we want to go.” Then we need to translate that into something companies and investors can use. We need to give them something to start with.
This is part of a series of articles recognizing the second slate of organizations to be honored by Shaw’s sustain[HUMAN]ability® Leadership Recognition Program. Each of the 10 organizations selected for this year’s recognition program is a leader in its own right and offers something from which we can all learn about putting people at the heart of sustainability. To read more about the other organizations recognized by Shaw, visit the landing page for this blog series.