Exploring and improving material health is a big part of modern product innovation.

As we get more sophisticated in designing products from the molecule up, the opportunity to make products healthier during manufacturing, throughout product use, and into reclamation becomes absolutely critical – a whole new way to impact sustainability. The future of product innovation is really tied to assessing and improving the stuff they are made of so we have to look into measuring product health. But how?

When you boil them down, products are a molecular soup of ingredients – some with more good ingredients than others. For example, notoriously problematic ingredients like mercury, lead, and copper can all be found, to some degree, in our light bulbs, our computers, our paint… so what then?

There are two schools of thought: do we measure the hazards or measure the risks? Do we limit the presence of materials that present a hazard or measure and limit the risk of those materials escaping the product and entering the biosphere?

Some think that any presence of “chemicals of concern” is alarming. And I’m among them. As a biochemist, I’m more aware than most about the toxics that surround us. And I long for the time when we can ensure that all products are designed to be 100% safe and healthy for the planet. That’s what I’ve dedicated myself to at MBDC – assessing product chemistry and bringing about better alternatives.

But while this “hazard” mode is one way to evaluate product health, we have to consider a broader perspective in the way we assess health.

Let’s consider risk. What is the risk I’ll get cancer from smoking cigarettes? Pretty good. What about eating a blackened steak? Well, I love steak. For me, that’s a tradeoff I’m happy to make. And I’m ok to drive a car despite the lead acid battery, too. If something has high aquatic toxicity but has no exposure to the outside, like in an industrial process, that’s a good system. In a lawn chair, or playground equipment, it’s probably not so good.

When we evaluate risk, we measure hazard and exposure. This gives us a sense of what’s acceptable and what’s not. This is how we operate on a human level, and it’s also how the chemical industry operates. This is what toxicologists are trained in and what major corporations are doing today.

It’s not a perfect system. There are admittedly cases when this style of risk assessment has created problems – when exposure calculations were wrong. Pesticides are one example. We are trying to create tools that help others take this path with robust training and continual guidance of assessors. Any time you have a process that requires human intervention, you are never guaranteed. But you can put systems in place to maximize your chances for success.

I view risk assessment as a multiplication of Hazard x Exposure. The two have to be seen in relation to one another. So if there is no hazard, there is no risk. And if there is no exposure, there is also no risk.

Those advocates of hazard avoidance I speak with would agree that this equation is true but would push for zero hazards. I hear that. An ideal world would have zero hazardous substances. Let’s work to that. But creating a hazard-free world or eliminating all hazards entirely is not yet reality. Worse, it holds back innovation by hampering interim strategies that designers can use today. We can’t slow manufacturing to wait for a step-change to occur, and it might not even be possible. Plus, water and other benign ingredients can be harmful at certain exposure levels. Is it possible to have materials or chemicals that are completely hazard free?

Taking a risk-based approach is certainly not taking the easy way out in terms of the rigor of assessment – it’s a lot harder than just calling out hazards and maintains a standard that’s on par with what manufacturers are accustomed to. There’s no faster way to kill a conversation at the next product innovation cocktail party than by being an absolutist on hazard assessment. If we are going to create a wave of healthy product innovation, we need to move beyond this black and white hazard vs. risk conundrum.

Let’s see product health on a risk-based continuum. You begin the evaluation process by tearing the product down to its base materials, or “building blocks,” and then further tear those down to their fundamental chemistries. It’s at this point that you begin to understand the hazards inherent in a substance and the related risks it may pose through all relevant routes of exposure during the manufacturing, use, and end of use product phases. This exercise strengthens the fact that we (as humans and agents of industry) need to be more accountable for things that we produce up to and through the end-of-use phase. There comes a certain responsibility with choosing to use a hazardous substance in a risk-based approach. As a manufacturer, you must accept that responsibility and ensure that the substance can be safely contained in the technical metabolism for all (re)use scenarios.

So let’s agree that all hazardous substances do not have the same degree of risk. Let’s take that same perspective and stimulate innovation by exploring ways to bring exposure levels to zero. By containing all hazardous materials in closed loops, perpetually.

If you’re not just stopping at the hazard, but weighing the risk, you are empowered to engage the supply chain and become a true partner to industry – helping them explore process questions like: why did you choose to use this substance? How are you sending this material to your customer? What are you doing at end of use? Do you have a robust materials management strategy? Are you truly vested in the take back/return/recovery/recycling of this substance?

By approaching industry with a familiar standard for risk assessment while working to eliminate hazards, we can reduce the possible routes of exposure and increase safety. This can be a true catalyst for change in the supply chain and speed further, much needed innovation in green product chemistry.

Jay Bolus is President, Certification Services at MBDC, a sustainability consulting firm that advises companies on integrating Cradle to Cradle® principles into products, operations, and corporate strategy to regenerate economy, ecology, and equity. As President of Certification Services, Bolus’ passion is fueled by working with product development teams to add business value through a better understanding of what products are made from and how to optimize products through continuous improvement. With almost two decades experience and one of the original authors of the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM Products Program, Bolus has the unique insight required to understand how to work with a company’s global supply chain to inventory, assess, and optimize products.