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Greener chemistry

18 October 2017

The article at a glance

The ‘green chemistry’ movement to reduce health, safety and environmental impacts has made some progress – but has also met resistance from …

The ‘green chemistry’ movement to reduce health, safety and environmental impacts has made some progress – but has also met resistance from within, says new study co-authored by Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville of Cambridge Judge Business School.

The Earth being researched in a test tube

Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville
Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville

Now Diageo Professor of Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School, Jennifer Howard-Grenville moved to academia after a stint in operations consulting looking at how major manufacturers and airlines dealt with what those companies typically refer to as “technical problems” such as optimising factory output or airline route structures.

“Often these aren’t really technical problems at all, but rather problems of culture, teamwork, expertise and status,” she says. “The real issue is how people frame things, what problems they attend to, and how these inform the solutions they come up with.”

Jennifer has applied the same insight to a new study that examines both the progress and stubborn barriers to widespread acceptance of “green chemistry” – a set of 12 principles originating in the 1980s that involve redesigning chemical products and processes to reduce their health, safety and environmental impacts.

As with resolving “technical” problems in engineering, progress in green chemistry has often stumbled due to issues related but one step removed from the core matter at hand. While few in the broader chemistry community would denounce the basic ideals behind green chemistry, the pursuit of those ideals has created conflict with other central principles or customs of their occupation.

“Green chemistry is a great example of a change that most lay people would say is fantastic – of course we want greener chemistry,” says Jennifer, who co-authored the study with four academic colleagues. “But for chemists, it’s a subtle, complex and potentially threatening idea.”

The study published in Administrative Science Quarterly focuses on green chemistry to explore how a set of guidelines can help change an entire occupation for the better – but also how roadblocks to such change can develop when the mechanisms driving change come from within a community rather than from external triggers.

“Green chemistry shows that you can generate internally driven change in an occupation – that you can invite people to sit up and think differently about their work – but in so doing, you must be prepared for people to respond in diverse ways and for some tension to result,” says Jennifer.

So, while green chemistry appealed to some chemists because it forced them to think more creatively, or because the use of safer chemicals helped them cope with limited teaching laboratory budgets, others shunned green chemistry as “tree hugging” or not “real chemistry”.

The study based on 600 pages of interview transcripts with 38 chemists found that green chemistry’s pioneers used three “frames” to appeal to colleagues: portraying green chemistry as an extension of chemists’ normal role as innovators; using a moral argument that might appeal to chemists as educators and communicators with the broader public; and taking a pragmatic approach aimed at chemists as problem solvers. And while these three different ways of framing their message were necessary to appeal to such a diverse audience, their inconsistency threw up a challenge.

“Because the different frames resonated with different roles, tensions could be experienced within the individual as he or she navigated and performed several roles, and tensions also arose among chemists when their understanding of green chemistry and its utility and application aligned with different occupational roles” the study says. “The tensions resulting from frame incompatibility dissuaded some chemists from adopting green chemistry.”

Specifically, there were three types of tensions: tension of quality, when chemists found pragmatic green chemistry solutions conflicted with their role as innovators; tension of commitment involving chemists’ roles as innovators versus educators; and tension of complexity relating to chemists’ roles as pragmatic problem solvers versus communicators.

Professor James Clark of the University of York – one of the chemists interviewed by Jennifer – has experienced such tensions first hand. A pioneer of green chemistry in the UK, Clark helped establish the York Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, which does research on green product design and clean synthesis as well as working with industrial partners and offering an MSc in Green Chemistry and Sustainable Industrial Technology (the first in Europe).

“I got into green chemistry before it was called ‘green chemistry,’” Clark says. “An industrial collaboration with a Merseyside company – seeing how chemical manufacturing was actually done – made me realise the challenges they faced in terms of waste and hazardous reagents and the relevance of what we were doing in academia.”

What he didn’t bargain for, however, was how slow the pace of change would be and who would be most resistant to change. “I’ve been surprised, disappointed, frustrated – take your pick,” he admits. “Among academics, in the early days only a very small number were doing green chemistry seriously. Now it’s a somewhat bigger number but still a minority… They always say the people closest to you are the most difficult to persuade.”

Based on her research, Jennifer says she reached similar conclusions: “Our study shows there are strong norms guiding what it means to be a research chemist or an industrial chemist or a chemist who draws their identity from educating. So one of our key messages is that it’s some chemists – not the rest of the world – who object to green chemistry.” But the conundrum is that chemists are the very experts who can design safer and cleaner chemistries for the rest of us, so appealing to their diverse identities is key to generating a complex pathway to change.

The study – entitled “‘If chemists don’t do it, who is going to?’ Peer-driven occupational change and the emergence of green chemistry” – was co-authored by Jennifer Howard-Grenville of Cambridge Judge Business School, Andrew J. Nelson and Julie A. Haack of the University of Oregon, Andrew G. Earle of the University of New Hampshire, and Douglas M. Young of Lane Community College in Oregon.