A Golden Era in Safer Chemicals Is on the Horizon

CC BY 2.0. XoMEoX

Chemical substitution used to be about dropping a new round peg in an old round hole. That could be changing, and big data may be the key.

The game used to go something like this: need to replace CFC refrigerants that are causing a hole in the ozone? Enter HCFCs, refrigerants that pose less threat to the ozone. Yay! We can keep building inefficiently and pump fossil fuels into air conditioning to keep us cool! Parents want baby bottles free of BPA? Use BPS, a closely related chemical. Oops, BPS may harm our children too.

But now we are entering a "golden era" for safer chemicals. Two factors that will influence a new approach can both thank "big data": one is the best collection of chemical safety data ever, and the other is the companies' own datasets on their customers and markets.

By the middle of 2018, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) will close the last phase of an immense project to collect all known health and environmental data on every single chemical sold in the entire European Union (EU). People are starting to look now at the next steps in this amazing precautionary approach to the chemicals in our lives:

  • Can the database be used to help companies find safer alternatives to chemicals identified as high risk?
  • Should the agency get active in helping businesses to innovate safer chemistry solutions?
  • What can accelerate the move to safer alternatives?
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    But the data on chemicals is only a start. More data can help better predict when a choice like BPS is just a poor excuse to be able to advertise "BPA-free" on a product. But it won't force companies to entirely rethink whether the products they make money with today can keep their company strong in the future. Chemical data alone cannot alter how companies use the substitution solution to stay one step ahead of the laws and customer pressures that force them to part ways with more dangerous chemicals.

    That's where the second arm of big data comes in. Nobody knows their customers and market better than the companies that are awash with the data they collect every business day. This data has taken on a value of its own, and the company that can use their insiders' knowledge of what is possible to better serve their future customers will be the one that has staying power.

    Today, businesses everywhere engage in analysis of strategic threats and opportunities. Knowledge of their markets and supply chains counts as a major strength in most companies. What executive management needs to be asking is not how can I sell more of what I sell now, but how can my company lead the revolution towards a sustainable future?

    The successful companies of the future will move beyond using big data to optimize their current processes. We have taken many baby steps towards being less bad. Now the race is on to be good!