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Green Chemistry: A Sustainable, Highly Produced Future?

Leon Kaye | Wednesday August 17th, 2011 | 0 Comments
photo courtesy of Joe Sullivan and Wiki Commons.

photo courtesy of Joe Sullivan and Wiki Commons.

TriplePundit and I were recently invited to a “virtual conference” sponsored by Dow Chemical.  The “Future We Create” love-fest was a meeting of 30 green chemistry thought leaders in academia, industry, and in the non-profit sector.  Various viewpoints were tossed around for over an hour, and the event was part Oprah, part Star Trek, and for NPR geeks, part Sandy Wood.

Yesterday’s conference focused on the future of green chemistry.  It is true that chemistry as a discipline is far more sophisticated and useful for much more than creating fertilizers and pesticides.  Just about everything we use has been touched by a chemical manufacturing company of one kind of another. And not all chemicals are toxins.  Chemistry is a noble field, and the growing movement in “sustainable” or “green” chemistry will be necessary as we search for solutions to issues from clean water to clean energy.  All of the speakers at yesterday’s event were thoughtful, accomplished, and brilliant.

However, that the Future We Create event (sponsored by Dow Chemical, which their public relations firm requested that I mention, so that box is checked) was really not a conference, but a highly produced event that was assembled and recorded in advance–with no participation other than a Twitter feed that at first had posts on it from a year ago.  No real discussions occurred–just a series of talking points.  And therein lies the problem–a company that wants to show it is a clean green company wound up exposing itself to accusations of “greenwashing.”

Dow has run into this problem before.  When the company’s public relations firm organized a clean water event earlier this year, it requested author Anna Lappé contribute to that virtual conference.  She sent her submission, which discussed the effects of toxic chemicals on water and people, the PR firm rejected it, and Ms. Lappé went public with the exchanged emails and her video.

Unfortunately Dow and its PR firm have not learned from that episode, which distracts from the messages that various thought leaders expressed:  that green chemistry has a future; universities have a role in teaching sustainable chemistry; chemists need to be retrained; hydrocarbons are diminishing, we have got to develop technologies that can scale without causing harm; and science is a noble calling.  John Elkington, who coined the term “triple bottom line,” offered an eloquent video about chemistry’s roles in solving problem, and many other speakers gave opinions on everything from how to use every last item to how chemistry can contribute to “cradle to cradle” systems.

But if Dow Chemical wants to convince consumers–most of whom recoil at the mere mention of “chemicals”–the company is better off presenting real discussions that are not heavily produced and overly polished like a presidential debate.  The way in which Dow packaged this conference exposed why “greenwashing” accusations still run rampant, and why many professionals and activists are frustrated with corporate social responsibility.  And public relations firms, which employ good, hard-working, and creative people, contribute to this problem too. Instead of offering compelling news and content, they frequently ask news organizations and writers to do their job for them–provide positive publicity and upbeat messaging that skirts other issues.  Dow Chemical still faces a bevy of controversies:  just search for “dow chemical future we create” in your favorite browser and the real news is evident.  Dow is dealing with accusations of groundwater contamination and yesterday’s event just came across as a sideshow.

In the end, People want action and authenticity, not condescending canned “conferences.”  As Anna Lappé reminds us:

What would be pretty cool would be if the company put even a fraction of the resources it spends on marketing into cleaning up communities whose water it has polluted.

So with that said, I blew my career move as a sustainability strategist at Dow or within a public relations company.  Let the nasty-grams start flowing.
Bring it.

Leon Kaye writes for Guardian Sustainable Business and his own site, GreenGoPost.com.


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