(Photo courtesy of Manali Anne Photography)

By Anne Kramer, CRB Student Advisory Board & MBA ’18 Candidate; Maxwell Kushner-Lenhoff, CRB Student Advisory Board, CRB Fellow & MBA ’18 Candidate

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, once said of a failing cause, “We have the means and the capacity to deal with our problems, if only we can find the political will.” This quote applies all too well to sustainable, green chemistry, especially in the apparel industry. Luckily, Levi’s Strauss and Co. set out to change this status quo. Collaborating with the Center for Responsible Business, Levi’s sponsored a forum at Haas in March. Centered around the Center for Responsible Business’ case study titled “Driving the Adoption for Green Chemistry,” the event allowed leaders across apparel, chemical, data, investment, and other industries to learn about Levi’s screened chemistry approach and find a path to greater political will together.

Max, with experience at Dow and a BS/MS in inorganic chemistry, was looking to explore a novel approach to the sustainability innovation and adoption challenges he witnessed while working in the chemical industry. Anne, who joined Nike’s Sustainable Business & Innovation team this summer, was eager to draw conclusions about how big brands can lead change in this space.

CRB’s event offered us both the chance to address our curiosities, convening more than 80 attendees representing more than 20 diverse organizations, including Apple, Patagonia, and Seventh Generation. After hearing from Levi’s, chemical suppliers and corporations, all attendees were put to work in small groups. Four stakeholder groups formed around data, investors, brands and chemical suppliers respectively. Three key themes for improvement stood out across all groups:

  1. First was the need for harmonization of standards across the industry. The proliferation of brand-specific standards in sustainable chemistry has meant that manufacturing facilities and chemical suppliers need to reconcile several nearly identical requirements. These redundant standards take up time and cause costly inefficiencies, creating confusion rather than driving action. Collaboration at an industry level is desperately needed. As solutions, attendees suggested political advocacy, financial backing of emerging standards (i.e., SASB) and open sourcing of chemical lists. Brands recognized that the burden for collaboration lies heavily with them and understood that leading by example might not be enough. Nonprofits and political advocates were fronted as a potential vehicle for this change. Hopefully, a standard will eventually emerge in the apparel industry that – like LEED certification in real estate – will drive both action and value.
  2. All groups emphasized the need for more green innovation at all levels of the supply chain. Big brands, like Levi’s, were motivated to implement a screened chemistry program because it was the right thing to do. But, smaller companies and chemical suppliers indicated the need for greater incentives to innovate. All stakeholders recognized that they each have talents and skills that, if leveraged as a collective, can create those incentives for innovation. Big brands have capital as well as consumer and industry knowledge that they should share with small companies and academia. With funding and access to information, small companies and academia could capitalize on their ability to take risks. Perhaps tomorrow’s innovations can be incentivized with an “Intel Inside”-like campaign supporting the development of sustainable chemistry.
  3. Supporting this type of program will require significantly more transparency and education than exists today. Within the industry, there were calls to democratize access to green chemistry information, R&D data, and tools. Externally, all recognized the need to educate the consumer, since they – more than any other actor – have the power to influence what’s contained in their products.

The final speaker noted the event ended with more questions than answers, galvanizing the audience with a call to get more voices in the room and to invest in attracting young talent to the field. All attendees were asked to commit to take action, in every board room and at every level of government. Anne left with a drive to get Nike at the table, and Max to left determined to create a follow-up forum for sustainability in the electronics supply chain. How will you help to build the political will to drive the adoption of Green Chemistry?

Anne Kramer

Anne Kramer is a second year MBA student at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business where she focuses on corporate sustainability. Prior to her MBA, Anne worked in healthcare strategy consulting, most recently for the Gates Foundation. She is supporting Berkeley-Haas launch its first Zero Waste building and is currently interning on Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation team this summer, helping to embed sustainability into more business functions.

Maxwell Kushner-Lenhoff is a Fellow at the Center for Responsible Business, VP of the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) and a full-time MBA student at Berkeley Haas. Prior to business school, he earned his BS/MS in inorganic chemistry at Yale focused on renewable fuels production. He then spent four years in the Office of the CEO at The Dow Chemical Company, where he worked on the company’s 2025 Sustainability Goals, among other projects. Max is currently a Summer R&D Finance Associate at Genentech.

Previous Yale Brings Plant Power to Win the 2nd Annual Patagonia Case Competition Next Investment for Impact Research Prize Winner: Workers Value Purpose and Meaningfulness at Work