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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
On the Importance of Made-to-Scale, Sustainable Chemicals for Products

Consumers deserve access to functional, sustainable and affordable products without having to sacrifice quality or their health. Scalable, bio-based chemicals hold tremendous promise in accomplishing these goals.

With two-thirds of consumers saying they are willing to spend more for them, sustainable products are officially big business. This growing preference — which comes at a critical time for the climate crisis — is propped up by new guidelines requiring manufacturers to disclose their emissions and state initiatives to close gaps in federal oversight by requiring cosmetic and personal care products to disclose ingredients.

But as demand for sustainability grows, companies are struggling to keep up. Moves toward capitalizing on consumer preferences to market products as sustainable have not always been effective or truthful — a practice widely known as greenwashing — which not only violates consumer safety and trust but a growing number of government regulations.

Last year, for example, Sephora faced a class action lawsuit for misusing the term “clean” — with customers alleging that products with the label contain plenty of synthetic ingredients, some of which can cause skin irritation. Meanwhile, companies ranging from Burger King to Burt’s Bees are also facing litigation for mislabeling products or packaging as sustainable and natural when they contain PFAS — synthetic chemical compounds also known as “forever chemicals” that are associated with cancer, liver damage and decreased fertility.

Cases like these add to confusion that consumers face when it comes to the marketplace: Many of those surveyed seldom or never believe claims that products are eco-friendly. Evidence suggests they have good reason not to.

In 2021, ChemScore, an annual ranking of the world’s chemical companies based on their environmental footprint produced by the non-profit ChemSec, found that 38 out of 50 companies profiled offered no public information on hazardous chemicals while marketing their products as cleaner and more sustainable.

To ensure that the everyday products we use are truly sustainable, we must begin their production with what makes them genuinely so: Sustainable chemicals.

Sustainable or bio-based chemicals — which are derived from biological materials such as plants — can improve the performance, environmental impact and cost of the chemicals that go into products.

With Deloitte estimating the US chemical industry’s greenhouse gas emissions to exceed over 200 million metric tons per year, the growing development and availability of bio-based alternatives to traditional, petroleum-based chemicals that we use for personal care, cleaning, food, transportation and more; and the market opportunity for them is rapidly growing: According to estimates from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the economic opportunity for bio-based products is slated to reach $7.7 trillion by 2030.

Tapping into the business of bio-based chemicals quickly and affordably to keep up with consumer demand is one key to helping achieve the climate goals set forth by governments in the US and across Europe.

One promising path for the chemical industry to enable true sustainability in everyday products involves engineering microbes in a natural process known as precision fermentation — which uses renewable agricultural feedstock such as sugar to nourish microbial organisms which then work to produce chemicals that can be used in many market segments — from home care and food to materials and more. Beyond the true sustainability benefits of production that are passed onto consumers, manufacturing bio-based chemicals can contribute to the onshoring of jobs and localizing supply chains.

Consumers deserve access to functional, sustainable and affordable products without having to sacrifice quality or their health. Scalable, bio-based chemicals hold tremendous promise in accomplishing these goals.

With pioneering policies such as the Biden administration’s $2 billion initiative to advance biomanufacturing to support chemical decarbonization, the time is now to deliver on solutions that keep both consumers and the planet top of mind.

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