Safe and Sustainable-by-Design: could it become a competitive boost for the European industry?

There is a wide consensus that the concept of Safe and Sustainable-by-Design (SSbD) chemicals has the potential to accelerate chemical innovation and provide for a sustainable growth. Now the discussion needs to focus on the implementation of this concept and address the outstanding questions about criteria and incentives to invest into innovations which are Safe and Sustainable-by-Design.

 Addressing the methodologies, criteria and incentives, Jürgen Tiedje, Head of the Industrial Transformation Unit of DG RTD, stressed the need for finding a “common language” on Safe-and-Sustainable-by-Design and tapping into the stakeholders’ expertise to develop a methodology. The European Commission is planning a series of stakeholder workshops in Q1 and Q3 2022.

To bring forward the development of the criteria, the Commission has recently published a mapping study and a survey on Research & Innovation activities and existing policies and initiatives where sustainability criteria have already been implemented..

“Without the industry, this transition towards safe and sustainable chemicals and materials cannot happen. There is a process, and we should not jump immediately to regulation, we need to focus on getting the whole process started”, said Tiedje.

For Joel Tickner, Professor of Environmental Health at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the chemical industry is more and more recognising that there are “growing markets and regulatory demands for chemicals that are both safe and sustainable, which require significant investments, and a supply chain alignment and willingness to engage, to share costs, to create a clear demand signal”. According to Tickner, the starting element should be safety. The good news is that “economic research shows that people are willing to pay more for sustainable products, and these products are growing much faster in the marketplace”, said Tickner.

From a downstream perspective, “collaboration with the industry and suppliers is necessary to create chemical innovations and to put safe and sustainable products in the market”, said Ian Malcomber, Chemical Safety Programme Director at Unilever. Besides that, a multistakeholder dialogue is essential for putting in place well-designed policies and mechanisms to achieve the Green Deal. The Unilever’s view is that creating a set of principles and an assessment toolbox would help make the right choices in innovating the chemicals we all need.

For ChemSec’s Deputy Director, Frida Hök, a labelling system for Safe and Sustainable-by-Design could be a solution. The implementation of the Safe and Sustainable-by-Design criteria should start with looking at inherent safety properties and the CO2 emissions, and adding more parameters over time to allow the industry to adapt.

As Martin Hojsík, Member of the European Parliament stated, “the whole idea of Safe and Sustainable-by-design is a really unique opportunity for the European chemical industry to reinvent itself. The end goal is to have chemicals that are intrinsically safe and that we can roll out into a circular society within the energy opportunities of the planet”.

Next steps

Defining Safe and Sustainable-by-Design process and criteria is a journey which requires all stakeholders to work together with the European Commission to come up with a harmonised framework that enables the transformation of our industry and society. The chemical industry has shared its first contribution to the debate with its recently launched paper “Safe and Sustainable-by-Design: Boosting innovation and growth within the European Chemistry Industry”.