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4.3 Molecular Thinking

Learning Objectives

  1. Explore systems thinking at the molecular level.
  2. Focus on materials innovation.
  3. Provide examples of green chemistry applications.

In this discussion, we encourage you to think on the micro level, as though you were a molecule. We tend to focus on what is visible to the human eye, forgetting that important human product design work takes place at scales invisible to human beings. Molecular thinking, as a metaphorical subset of systems thinking, provides a useful perspective by focusing attention on invisible material components and contaminants. In the first decade of the twenty-first century there has been heavy emphasis on clean energy in the media. Yet our world is composed of energy and materials. When we do examine materials we tend to focus on visible waste streams, such as the problems of municipal waste, forgetting that some of the most urgent environmental health problems are caused by microscopic, and perhaps nanoscale, compounds. These compounds contain persistent contaminants that remain invisible in the air, soil, and water and subsequently accumulate inside our bodies through ingestion of food and water. Thinking like a molecule can reveal efficiency and innovation opportunities that address hazardous materials exposure problems; the principles of green chemistryChemical design, manufacture, and use guided by principles that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances and waste. give you the tools to act on such opportunities. The companies discussed in this section provide examples of successful sustainability innovation efforts at the molecular level.

Green chemistry, an emerging area in science, is based on a set of twelve design principles.Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Application of the principles can significantly reduce or even eliminate generation of hazardous substances in the design, manufacture, and application of chemical products. Green chemistry offers many business benefits. Its guiding principles drive design of new products and processes around health and environmental criteria and can help firms capture top (revenue) and bottom line (profitability) gains within the company and throughout value chains. As public demand and regulatory drivers for “clean” products and processes grow, molecular thinking enables entrepreneurs inside large and small companies to differentiate their businesses and gain competitive advantage over others who are less attuned to the changing market demands.

In the ideal environment, green chemistry products are derived from renewable feedstocks, and toxicity is deliberately prevented at the molecular level. Green chemistry also provides the means of shifting from a petrochemical-based economy based on oil feedstocks (from which virtually all plastics are derived) to a bio-based economy. This has profound consequences for a wide range of issues, including environmental health, worker safety, national security, and the agriculture sector. While no one scientific approach can supply all the answers, green chemistry plays a foundational role in enabling companies to realize concrete benefits from greener design.

What does it mean to pursue sustainability innovation at the molecular level? When chemicals and chemical processes are selected and designed to eliminate waste, minimize energy use, and degrade safely upon disposal, the result is a set of processes streamlined for maximum efficiency. In addition, hazards to those who handle the chemicals, along with the chemicals’ inherent costs, are designed out of both products and processes. With the growing pressure on firms to take responsibility for the adverse impacts of business operations throughout their supply chain and the demand for greater transparency by corporations, forward-thinking organizations—whether start-ups or established firms—increasingly must assess products and process steps for inherent hazard and toxicity.

12 Principles of Green Chemistry

  1. Prevent waste, rather than treat it after it is formed.
  2. Maximize the incorporation of all process materials into the final product.
  3. Use and generate substances of little or no toxicity.
  4. Preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity.
  5. Eliminate or minimize use of or toxicity of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents).
  6. Recognize and minimize energy requirements; shoot for room temperature.
  7. Use renewable raw material feedstock, if economically and technically possible.
  8. Avoid unnecessary derivatization (e.g., blocking group, protection/deprotection).
  9. Consider catalytic reagents superior to stoichiometric reagents.
  10. Design end product to innocuously degrade, not persist.
  11. Develop analytical methodologies that facilitate real-time monitoring and control.
  12. Choose substances/forms that minimize potential for accidents, releases, and fires.Paul T. Anastas and John C. Warner, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 30.

Molecular thinking, applied through the use of the green chemistry principles, guides you to examine the nature of material inputs to your products. Once again, a life-cycle approach is required to consider, from the outset, the ultimate fate of your waste outputs and products. This analysis can occur concurrently with delivering a high-quality product to the buyer. Thus thinking like a molecule asks business managers and executives to examine not only a product’s immediate functionality but its entire molecular cycle from raw material, through manufacture and processing, to end of life and disposal. Smart decision makers will ask, Where do we get our feedstocks? Are they renewable or limited? Are they vulnerable to price and supply fluctuations? Are they vulnerable to emerging environmental health regulations? Are they inherently benign or does the management of risk incur costs in handling, processing, and disposal? Managers and sustainability entrepreneurs also must ask whether chemicals in their products accumulate in human tissue or biodegrade harmlessly. Where do the molecular materials go when thrown away? Do they remain stable in landfills, or do they break down to pollute local water supplies? Does their combination create new and more potent toxins when incinerated? If so, can air emissions be carried by wind currents and influence the healthy functioning of people and natural systems far from the source?

Until very recently these questions were not business concerns. Increasingly, however, circumstances demand that we think small (at the molecular and even nano levels) to think big (providing safe products for two to four billion aspiring middle-class citizens around the world). As we devise more effective monitoring devices that are better able to detect and analyze the negative health impacts of certain persistent chemical compounds, corporate tracking of product ingredients at the molecular level becomes imperative. Monitoring chemical materials to date has been driven primarily by increased regulation, product boycotts, and market campaigns by health-oriented nonprofit organizations. But instead of a reactive defense against these growing forces, forward-thinking entrepreneurial companies and individuals see new areas of business opportunity and growth represented by the updated science and shifting market conditions.

Green chemistry design principles are being applied by a range of leading companies across sectors including chemical giants Dow, DuPont, and Rohm and Haas and consumer product producers such as SC Johnson, Shaw Industries, and Merck & Co. Small and midsized businesses such as Ecover, Seventh Generation, Method, AgraQuest, and Metabolix also play a leading innovative role. (See the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award winners for a detailed list of these businesses.)US Environmental Protection Agency, “Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge: Award Winners,” last updated July 28, 2010, accessed December 3, 2010, Currently green chemistry–inspired design and innovation has made inroads into a range of applications, including the following:

Adhesives Pesticides
Cleaning products Pharmaceuticals
Fine chemicals Plastics
Fuels and renewable energy technologies Pulp and paper
Nanotechnologies Textile manufacturing
Paints and coatings Water purification

Included in green chemistry is the idea of the atom economyA practice that emphasizes the most efficient use of every input molecule in the final product., which would have manufacturers use as fully as possible every input molecule in the final output product. The pharmaceutical industry, an early adopter of green chemistry efficiency principles in manufacturing processes, uses a metric called E-factorAn efficiency measurement for chemicals production expressed as a ratio of inputs to outputs in any given product. E-factor measurement tells you how many units of weight of output one gets per unit of weight of input and provides a process efficiency metric that reports inherent costs associated with waste, energy, and other resources’ inputs rates of use. to measure the ratio of inputs to outputs in any given product.The definition of E-factor is evolving at this writing. Currently pharmaceutical companies engaged in green chemistry are debating whether to include input factors such as energy, water, and other nontraditional inputs. In essence, an E-factor measurement tells you how many units of weight of output one gets per unit of weight of input. This figure gives managers a sense of process efficiency and the inherent costs associated with waste, energy, and other resources’ rates of use. By applying green chemistry principles to pharmaceutical production processes, companies have been able to dramatically lower their E-factor—and significantly raise profits.

Merck & Co., for example, uncovered a highly innovative and efficient catalytic synthesis for sitagliptin, the active ingredient in Januvia, the company’s new treatment for type 2 diabetes. This revolutionary synthesis generated 220 pounds less waste for each pound of sitagliptin manufactured and increased the overall yield by nearly 50 percent. Over the lifetime of Januvia, Merck expects to eliminate the formation of at least 330 million pounds of waste, including nearly 110 million pounds of aqueous waste.US Environmental Protection Agency, “Presidential GC Challenge: Past Awards: 2006 Greener Synthetic Pathways Award,” last updated June 21, 2010, accessed December 2, 2010,


In 2002, pharmaceutical firm Pfizer won the US Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for Alternative Synthetic Pathways for its innovation of the manufacturing process for sertraline hydrochloride (HCl). Sertraline HCl is the active ingredient in Zoloft, which is the most prescribed agent of its kind used to treat depression. In 2004, global sales of Zoloft were $3.4 billion. Pharmaceutical wisdom holds that companies compete on the nature of the drug primarily and on process secondarily, with “maximum yield” as the main objective. Green chemistry adds a new dimension to this calculus: Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies are discovering that by thinking like a molecule and applying green chemistry process innovations, they see their atom economy exponentially improve.

In the case of Pfizer, the company saw that it could significantly cut input costs. The new commercial process offered dramatic pollution prevention benefits, reduced energy and water use, and improved safety and materials handling. As a consequence, Pfizer significantly improved worker and environmental safety while doubling product yield. This was achieved by analyzing each chemical step. The key improvement in the sertraline synthesis was reducing a three-step sequence in the original process to a single step.Stephen K. Ritter, “Green Challenge,” Chemical & Engineering News, 80, no. 26 (2009): 30. Overall, the process changes reduced the solvent requirement from 60,000 gallons to 6,000 gallons per ton of sertraline. On an annual basis, the changes eliminated 440 metric tons of titanium dioxide-methylamine hydrochloride salt waste, 150 metric tons of 35 percent hydrochloric acid waste, and 100 metric tons of 50 percent sodium hydroxide waste. With hazardous waste disposal growing more costly, this represented real savings now and avoided possible future costs.

By redesigning the chemical process to be more efficient and produce fewer harmful and expensive waste products, the process of producing sertraline generated both economic and environmental/health benefits for Pfizer. Typically, 20 percent of the wholesale price is manufacturing costs, of which approximately 20 percent is the cost of the tablet or capsule with the remaining percentage representing all other materials, energy, water, and processing costs. Using green chemistry can reduce both of these input costs significantly. As patents expire and pharmaceutical products are challenged by cheaper generics, maintaining the most efficient, cost-effective manufacturing process will be the key to maintaining competitiveness.

As mentioned earlier, E-factor analysis offers the means for streamlining materials processing and capturing cost savings. An efficiency assessment tool for the pharmaceutical industry, E-factor is defined as the ratio of total kilograms of all input materials (raw materials, solvents, and processing chemicals) used per kilogram of active product ingredient (API) produced. A pivotal 1994 study indicated that as standard practice in the pharmaceutical industry, for every kilogram of API produced, between twenty-five and one hundred kilograms or more of waste was generated—a ratio still found in the industry. By the end of the decade, E-factors were being used more frequently to evaluate products. Firms were identifying drivers of high E-factor values and taking action to improve efficiency. Multiplying the E-factor by the estimated kilograms of API produced by the industry overall suggested that, for the year 2003, as much as 500 million to 2.5 billion kilograms of waste could be the by-product of pharmaceutical industry API manufacture. This waste represented a double penalty: the costs associated with purchasing chemicals that are ultimately diverted from API yield and the costs associated with disposing of this waste (ranging from one to five dollars per kilogram depending on the hazard). Very little information is released by competitors in this industry, but a published 2004 GlaxoSmithKline life-cycle assessment of its API manufacturing processes revealed approximately 75 to 80 percent of the waste produced was solvent (liquid) and 20 to 25 percent solids, of which a considerable proportion of both was likely hazardous under state and federal laws.

For years, the pharmaceutical industry stated it did not produce the significant product volumes needed to be concerned about toxicity and waste, particularly relative to commodity chemical producers. However, government and citizen concern about product safety and high levels of medications in wastewater combined with the growing cost of hazardous waste disposal is changing that picture relatively quickly. With favorable competitive conditions eroding, companies have been eager to find ways to cut costs, eliminate risk, innovate, and improve their image.

After implementing the green chemistry award-winning process as standard in sertraline HCl manufacture, Pfizer’s experience indicated that green chemistry–guided process changes reduced E-factor ratios to ten to twenty kilograms. The potential to dramatically reduce E-factors through green chemistry could be significant. Other pharmaceutical companies that won Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards between 1999 and 2010—Lilly, Roche, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, and Merck—reported improvements of this magnitude after the application of green chemistry principles. Additionally, Pfizer was awarded the prestigious UK environmental Crystal Faraday Award for innovation in the redesign of the manufacturing process of sildenafil citrate (the active ingredient in the product Viagra).

Not surprisingly, thinking like a molecule applied through use of green chemistry’s twelve principles fits easily with existing corporate Six Sigma quality programs whose principles consider waste a process defect. “Right the first time” was an industry quality initiative backed strongly by the US Food and Drug Administration. Pfizer’s Dr. Berkeley (“Buzz”) Cue (retired but still actively advancing green chemistry in the industry), credited with introducing green chemistry ideas to the pharmaceutical industry, views these initiatives as a lens that allows the companies to look at processes and yield objectives in a more comprehensive way (a systems view), with quality programs dovetailing easily with the approach and even enhancing it.

Dr. Cue, looking back on his history with green chemistry and Pfizer, said, “The question is what has Pfizer learned through understanding Green Chemistry principles that not only advantages them in the short term, but positions them for future innovation and trends?”Phone interview with Berkeley Cue, retired Pfizer executive, July 16, 2003. This is an important question for entrepreneurs in small firms and large firms alike. If you think like a molecule, overlooked opportunities and differentiation possibilities present themselves. Are you calculating the ratio of inputs to outputs? Has your company captured obvious efficiency cost savings, increased product yield, and redesigned more customer and life-cycle effective molecules? Are you missing opportunities to reduce or eliminate regulatory oversight by replacing inherently hazardous and toxic inputs with benign materials? Regulatory compliance for hazardous chemical waste represents a significant budget item and cost burden. Those dollars would be more usefully spent elsewhere.

Green chemistry has generated breakthrough innovations in the agriculture sector as well. Growers face a suite of rising challenges connected with using traditional chemical pesticides. A primary concern is that pests are becoming increasingly resistant to conventional chemical pesticides. In some cases, pesticides must be applied two to five times to accomplish what a single application did in the 1970s. Moreover, pests can reproduce and mutate quickly enough to develop resistance to a pesticide within one growing season. Increased rates of pesticide usage deplete soil and contaminate water supplies, and these negative side effects and costs (so-called externalities) are shifted onto individuals while society bears the cost.


AgraQuest is an innovative small company based in Davis, California. The company was founded by entrepreneur Pam Marrone, a PhD biochemist with a vision of commercially harnessing the power of naturally occurring plant defense systems. Marrone had left Monsanto, where she had originally been engaged to do this work, when that company shifted its strategic focus to genetically modified plants. Marrone looked for venture capital and ultimately launched AgraQuest, a privately held company, which in 2005 employed seventy-two people and expected sales of approximately $10 million.

AgraQuest strategically differentiated itself by offering products that provided the service of effective pest management while solving user problems of pest resistance, environmental impact, and worker health and safety. AgraQuest provides an exemplary case study of green chemistry technology developed and brought to market at a competitive cost. The company is also is a prime example of how a business markets a disruptive technology and grapples with the issues that face a challenge to the status quo.

About AgraQuest

Powering today’s agricultural revolution for cleaner, safer food through effective biopesticides and innovative technologies for sustainable, highly productive farming and a better environment.

As a leader in innovative biological and low-chemical pest management solutions, AgraQuest is at the forefront of the new agriculture revolution and a shift in how food is grown. AgraQuest focuses on discovering, developing, manufacturing and marketing highly effective biopesticides and low-chem pest and disease control and yield enhancing products for sustainable agriculture, the home and garden, and food safety markets. Through its Agrochemical and BioInnovations Divisions, AgraQuest provides its customers and partners with tools to create value-enhancing solutions.Andrea Larson and Karen O’Brien, from field interviews; untitled/unpublished manuscript, 2006.

Winner of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Small Business Award in 2003 for its innovative enzymatic biotechnology process used to generate its products, AgraQuest employed a proprietary technology to screen naturally occurring microorganisms to identify those that may have novel and effective pest management characteristics.US Environmental Protection Agency, “Green Chemistry: Award Winners,” accessed July 28, 2010, AgraQuest scientists traveled around the world searching out promising-looking microbes for analysis. AgraQuest scientists gathered microbe samples from around the world, identifying those that fight the diseases and pests that destroy crops. Once located, these microorganisms were screened, cultivated, and optimized in AgraQuest’s facilities and then sent in powder or liquid form to growers. In field trials and in commercial use, AgraQuest’s microbial pesticides have been shown to attack crop diseases and pests and then completely biodegrade, leaving no residue behind. Ironically, AgraQuest’s first product was developed from a microbe found in the company’s backyard—a nearby peach orchard. Once the microbe was identified, company biochemists analyzed and characterized the compound structures produced by selected microorganisms to ensure there were no toxins, confirm that the product biodegraded innocuously, and identify product candidates for development and commercialization.

The company, led by entrepreneur Marrone, has screened over twenty-three thousand microorganisms and identified more than twenty product candidates that display high levels of activity against insects, nematodes, and plant pathogens. These products include Serenade, Sonata, and Rhapsody biological fungicides; Virtuoso biological insecticide; and Arabesque biofumigant. The market opportunities for microbial-based pesticides are extensive. Furthermore, the booming $4 billion organic food industry generates rising demand for organic-certified pest management tools. As growers strive to increase yields to meet this expanding market, they require more effective, organic means of fighting crop threats. AgraQuest’s fungicide Serenade is organic certified to serve this expanding market, and other products are in the pipeline.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has streamlined the registration process for “reduced-risk” bio-based pesticides such as AgraQuest’s to help move them to market faster. The Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division oversees regulation of all biopesticides and has accelerated its testing and registration processes. The average time from submission to registration is now twelve to fourteen months rather than five to seven years.

Moreover, since the products biodegrade and are inherently nontoxic to humans, they are exempt from testing for “tolerances”—that is, the threshold exposure to a toxic substance to which workers can legally be exposed. This means that workers are required to wait a minimum of four hours after use before entering the fields, whereas other conventional pesticides require a seventy-two-hour wait. The reduction of restricted entry intervals registers as time and money saved to growers. Therefore, AgraQuest products can act as “crop savers”—used immediately prior to harvest in the event of bad weather. To growers of certain products, such as wine grapes, this can mean the difference between success and failure for a season.

AgraQuest deployed exemplary green chemistry and sustainability innovation strategies. The opportunity presented by the problems associated with conventional chemical pesticides was relatively easy to perceive, but designing a viable alternative took real ingenuity and a dramatic diversion from well-worn industry norms. Thinking like a molecule in this context enabled the firm to challenge the existing industry pattern of applying toxins and instead examine how natural systems create safe pesticides. Marrone and her team have been able to invent entirely new biodegradable and benign products—and capitalize on rising market demand for the unique array of applications inherent in this type of product.

As the science linking cause and effect grows more sophisticated, public concern about the human health and environmental effects of pesticides is increasing.Rick A. Relyeaa, “The Impact of Insecticides and Herbicides on the Biodiversity and Productivity of Aquatic Communities,” Ecological Applications 15, no. 2 (2005): 618–27; Xiaomei Ma, Patricia A. Buffler, Robert B. Gunier, Gary Dahl, Martyn T. Smith, Kyndaron Reinier, and Peggy Reynolds, “Critical Windows of Exposure to Household Pesticides and Risk of Childhood Leukemia,” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 9 (2002): 955–60; Anne R. Greenlee, Tammy M. Ellis, and Richard L. Berg, “Low-Dose Agrochemicals and Lawn-Care Pesticides Induce Developmental Toxicity in Murine Preimplantation Embryos,” Environmental Health Perspectives 112, no. 6 (2004): 703–9. Related to this is an international movement to phase out specific widely used pesticides such as DDT and methyl bromide. Moreover, a growing number of countries impose trade barriers on food imports due to residual pesticides on the products.

In this suite of challenges facing the food production industry, AgraQuest found opportunity. The logic behind AgraQuest’s product line is simple: rather than rely solely on petrochemical-derived approaches to eradicating pests, AgraQuest products use microbes to fight microbes. Over millennia, microbes have evolved complex defense systems that we are only now beginning to understand. AgraQuest designs products that replicate and focus these natural defense systems on target pests. When used in combination with conventional pesticides, AgraQuest products are part of a highly effective pest management system that has the added benefit of lowering the overall chemical load released into natural systems. Because they are inherently benign, AgraQuest products biodegrade innocuously, avoiding the threats to human health and ecosystems—not to mention associated costs—that growers using traditional pesticides incur.


In a final example, NatureWorks, Cargill’s entrepreneurial biotechnology venture, designed plastics made from biomass, a renewable input. The genius of NatureWorks’ biotechnology is that it uses a wide range of plant-based feedstocks and is not limited to corn, thus avoiding competition with food production. NatureWorks’ innovative breakthroughs addressed the central environmental problem of conventional plastic. Derived from oil, conventional plastic, a nonrenewable resource associated with a long list of environmental, price, and national security concerns, has become a major health and waste disposal problem. By building a product around bio-based inputs, NatureWorks designed an alternative product that is competitive in both performance and price—one that circumvents the pollution and other concerns of oil-based plastics. As a result of its successful strategy, NatureWorks has shifted the market in its favor.

NatureWorks LLC received the 2002 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for its development of the first synthetic polymer class to be produced from renewable resources, specifically from corn grown in the American Midwest. At the Green Chemistry and Engineering conference and awards ceremony in Washington, DC, attended by the president of the US National Academy of Sciences, the White House science advisor, and other dignitaries from the National Academies and the American Chemical Society, the award recognized the company’s major biochemistry innovation, achieved in large part under the guidance and inspiration of former NatureWorks technology vice president Patrick Gruber.

Gruber was an early champion of sustainability innovation. As an entrepreneur inside a large firm, he led the effort that resulted in NatureWorks’ bio-based plastic. Together with a team of chemical engineers, biotechnology experts, and marketing strategists, Gruber spearheaded the effort to marry agricultural products giant Cargill with chemical company Dow to create the spin-off company originally known as Cargill Dow and renamed NatureWorks in January 2005. Gruber was the visionary who saw the potential for a bio-based plastic and the possibilities for a new enzymatic green chemistry process to manufacture it. He helped drive that process until it was cost-effective enough to produce products competitive with conventional products on the market.

NatureWorks’ plastic, whose scientific name is polylactic acid (PLA), has the potential to revolutionize the plastics and agricultural industries by offering biomass-based biopolymers as a substitute for conventional petroleum-based plastics. NatureWorks resins were named and trademarked NatureWorks PLA for the polylactic acid that comprises the base plant sugars. In addition to replacing petroleum as the material feedstock, PLA resins have the added benefit of being compostable (safely biodegraded) or even infinitely recyclable, which means they can be reprocessed again and again. This provides a distinct environmental advantage, since recycling—or “down-cycling”—postconsumer or postindustrial conventional plastics into lower quality products only slows material flow to landfills; it does not prevent waste. Moreover, manufacturing plastic from corn field residues results in 30 to 50 percent fewer greenhouse gases when measured from “field to pellet.” Additional life-cycle environmental and health benefits have been identified by a thorough life-cycle analysis. In addition, PLA resins, virgin and postconsumer, can be processed into a variety of end uses.

In 2005, NatureWorks CEO Kathleen Bader and Patrick Gruber were wrestling with a number of questions. NatureWorks’ challenges were operational and strategic: how to take the successful product to high-volume production and how to market the unique resin in a mature plastics market. NatureWorks employed 230 people distributed almost equally among headquarters (labs and management offices), the plant, and international locations. As a joint venture, the enterprise had consumed close to $750 million dollars in capital and was not yet profitable, but it held the promise of tremendous growth that could transform a wide range of markets worldwide. In 2005, NatureWorks was still the only company in the world capable of producing large-scale corn-based resins that exhibited standard performance traits, such as durability, flexibility, resistance to chemicals, and strength—all at a competitive market price.

The plastics industry is the fourth largest manufacturing segment in the United States behind motor vehicles, electronics, and petroleum refining. Both the oil and chemical industries are mature and rely on commodities sold on thin margins. The combined efforts of a large-scale chemical company in Dow and an agricultural processor giant in Cargill suggested Cargill Dow—now NatureWorks—might be well suited for the mammoth task of challenging oil feedstocks. However, a question inside the business in 2005 was whether the company could grow beyond the market share that usually limited “environmental” products, considered somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of the market. Was PLA an “environmental product,” or was it the result of strategy that anticipated profound market shifts?

NatureWorks brought its new product to market in the late 1990s and early 2000s at a time of shifting market dynamics and converging health, environmental, national security, and energy independence concerns. These market drivers gave NatureWorks a profound edge. Oil supplies and instability concerns loomed large in 2005 and have not subsided. Volatile oil prices and political instability in oil-producing countries argued for decreasing dependence on foreign oil to the extent possible. The volatility of petroleum prices between 1995 and 2005 wreaked havoc on the plastics industry. From 1998 to 2001, natural gas prices (which typically tracked oil prices) doubled, then quintupled, then returned to 1998 levels. The year 2003 was again a roller coaster of unpredictable fluctuations, causing a Huntsman Chemical Corp. official to lament, “The problem facing the polymers and petrochemicals industry in the U.S. is unprecedented. Rome is burning.”Reference for Business, “SIC 2821: Plastic Materials and Resins,” accessed January 10, 2011, In contrast PLA, made from a renewable resource, offered performance, price, environmental compatibility, high visibility, and therefore significant value to certain buyers for whom this configuration of product characteristics is important.

Consumers are growing increasingly concerned about chemicals in products. This provides market space for companies who supply “clean materials.” NatureWorks’ strategists knew, for example, that certain plastics were under increasing public scrutiny. Health concerns, especially those of women and children, have put plastics under suspicion in the United States and abroad. The European Union and Japan have instituted bans and regulatory frameworks on some commonly used plastics and related chemicals. Plastic softeners such as phthalates, among the most commonly used additives, have been labeled in studies as potential carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Several common flame retardants in plastic can cause developmental disorders in laboratory mice. Studies have found plastics and related chemicals in mothers’ breast milk and babies’ umbilical cord blood samples.Sara Goodman, “Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood,” Scientific American, December 2, 2009, accessed January 10, 2011, -exposure-bpa; Éric Dewailly Dallaire, Gina Muckle, and Pierre Ayotte, “Time Trends of Persistent Organic Pollutants and Heavy Metals in Umbilical Cord Blood of Inuit Infants Born in Nunavik (Québec, Canada) between 1994 and 2001,” Environmental Health Perspectives 36, no. 13 (2003):1660–64.

Consumer concern about chemicals and health opens new markets for “clean” materials designed from a sustainability innovation perspective. In addition, international regulations are accelerating growth in the market. In 1999, the European Union banned the use of phthalates in children’s toys and teething rings and in 2003 banned some phthalates for use in cosmetics. States such as California have taken steps to warn consumers of the suspected risk of some phthalates. The European Union, California, and Maine banned the production or sale of products using certain polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs) as flame retardants. In 2006, the European Union was in the final phases of legislative directives to require registration and testing of nearly ten thousand chemicals of concern. The act, called Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH), became law in 2007 and regulates the manufacture, import, marketing, and use of chemicals. All imports into Europe need to meet REACH information requirements for toxicity and health impacts. Companies are required to demonstrate that a substance does not adversely affect human health, and chemical property and safe use information must be communicated up and down supply chains to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

All of these drivers contributed to the molecular thinking that generated NatureWorks’ corn-based plastics. The volatility of oil prices, growing consumer concerns about plastics and health, waste disposal issues, and changing international regulations are among the systemic issues creating a new competitive arena in which bio-based products based on green chemistry design principles can be successfully introduced.

Given higher levels of consumer awareness in Europe and Japan, NatureWorks’ plastic initially received more attention in the international market than in the United States. In 2004, IPER, an Italian food market, sold “natural food in natural packaging” (made with PLA) and attributed a 4 percent increase in deli sales to the green packaging.Carol Radice, “Packaging Prowess,” Grocery Headquarters, August 2, 2010, accessed January 10, 2011, NatureWorks established a strategic partnership with Amprica SpA in Castelbelforte, Italy, a major European manufacturer of thermoformed packaging for the bakery and convenience food markets. Amprica was moving ahead with plans to replace the plastics it used, including polyethelene terephthalate (PET), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and polystyrene with the PLA polymer.

In response to the national phaseout and ultimate ban of petroleum-based shopping bags and disposable tableware in Taiwan, Wei-Mon Industry (WMI) signed an exclusive agreement with NatureWorks to promote and distribute packaging articles made with PLA.NatureWorks LLC, “First Launch by Local Companies of Environmentally Friendly Paper & Pulp Products with NatureWorks PLA,” June 9, 2006, accessed January 7, 2011, In other markets, Giorgio Armani released men’s dress suits made completely of PLA fiber and Sony sold PLA Discman and Walkman products in Japan. Due to growing concerns about the health impacts of some flame-retardant additives, NEC Corp. of Tokyo combined PLA with a natural fiber called kenaf to make an ecologically and biologically neutral flame-resistant bioplastic.“NEC Develops Flame-Resistant Bio-Plastic,” GreenBiz, January 26, 2004, accessed December 2, 2010, http://www/ 26360.

The US market has been slower to embrace PLA, but Walmart’s purchasing decisions may change that. In fact, NatureWorks’ product solves several of Walmart’s problems. Walmart has battled corporate image problems on several fronts—in its treatment of employees, as a contributor to “big box” sprawl, and in its practice of outsourcing, among others. Sourcing NatureWorks’ bio-based, American-grown, corn-based plastic not only fits into Walmart’s larger corporate “sustainability” effort but addresses US dependence on foreign oil and supports the American farmer.

The spectrum of entrepreneurial activities in the sustainable materials arena is wide. While some entrepreneurs are early entrants who are fundamentally reconfiguring product systems, others take more incremental steps toward adopting cleaner, innovative materials and processes. However, incremental changes can be radical when taken cumulatively, as long as one constantly looks ahead toward the larger goal.

Many companies, within the chemical industry and outside, now understand that cost reductions and product/process improvements are available through green chemistry and other environmental efficiency policies. Documented cost savings in materials input, waste streams, and energy use are readily available. In recognition of the efficiency gains to be realized, as well as risk reduction and regulatory advantages, most firms acknowledge the benefits that result from developing a strategy with these goals in mind. In addition, companies know they can help avoid the adverse effects of ignoring theses issues, such as boycotts and stockholders’ resolutions that generate negative publicity.

However, the efficiency improvement and risk reduction sides of environmental concerns and sustainability are only the leading edge of the opportunities possible. Sustainability strategies and innovative practices go beyond incremental improvement to existing products. This future-oriented business strategy—geared toward new processes, products, technologies, and markets—offers profound prospects for competitive advantage over rival firms.

As the molecular links among the things we make and macrolevel issues such as health, energy independence, and climate change become more widely understood, companies that think strategically about the chemical nature of their products and processes will emerge as leaders. A “think like a molecule” approach to designing materials, products, and processes gives entrepreneurs and product designers an advantage. By combining this mode of operating with systems thinking and the other sustainability approaches discussed in Chapter 4 "Entrepreneurship and Sustainability Innovation Analysis", Section 4.4 "Weak Ties", you will have a strategy that will enable you not to merely survive but to lead in the twenty-first century.

Key Takeaways

  • Invisible design considerations—for example, the design of molecular materials—must be factored into consideration of sustainability design.
  • Green chemistry offers principles to guide chemical design and production.
  • Thinking like a molecule opens new avenues for progress toward safer product innovation.


  1. Contact your local government and ask about chemical compounds from industrial and commercial activity that end up in the water and air. What are the government’s major concerns? What are the sources of problematic chemicals? What is being done to reduce their release? Go to or to read about the Toxic Release Inventory. Search the inventory for evidence of hazardous chemicals used in your area.