While the environmental health field has raised awareness about the dangerous effects of toxic chemicals, it has not created a viable flow of responsible replacements to these toxic chemicals. Without those solutions, we cannot achieve our goal of reducing disease burdens in humans.
Advocates have spurred important bans and restrictions on “bad actor” chemicals. However, this is just the first step in protecting human health and the environment. Those bad actors are too often replaced with untested substitutes that are just as bad, if not worse, than the original chemicals. These are known as regrettable substitutions.
A good example is BPA in baby bottles. Companies now tout products that are BPA-free, but in many cases, they have replaced BPA with untested alternatives like BPS which are no less toxic.
So, here’s the elephant in the room: by advocating for bans on toxic chemicals without first identifying safer substitutions, we run the terrible risk of endangering—rather than protecting—people. Bans can create false confidence and fail to reduce hazardous exposures linked to disease risks.
We aren’t effective health and environment donors if we aren’t also supporting the innovation and commercialization of truly safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. To address this situation, my foundation, the Forsythia Foundation, studied how we might invest in scaling green chemistry solutions—also known as “benign by design” solutions or safer alternatives.
To some extent, these goals require infusions of grant capital to support academic institutions that are training the next generation of green chemists. But where money is mainly needed is in the very early investment stage, where green chemistry innovations run up against the lack of visionary capital needed to reach scale.
It became clear to us that the field needed an investment vehicle that can provide these resources. As foundation chair, I believe it’s time to convert traditional philanthropic risk aversion into solutions-oriented, proof-of-principle and first-mover advantage attraction! Indeed, I view the latter as the responsibility of tax-advantaged public trusts (our philanthropies), precisely because they are established with the obligation to advance public good and because of their greater ability to take on risk.
And so, with Forsythia as an anchor investor, Safer Made was launched. It’s an impact-driven venture capital fund that invests in high-potential companies and technologies that reduce people’s exposure to toxic chemicals—with the aim to make regrettable substitutions a thing of the past.
The principals of Safer Made are Adrian Horotan, an experienced early-stage investor; and Marty Mulvihill, a well-known scientist in the green chemistry community. With the help of partners from academic, NGO, and business circles, Adrian and Marty reviewed numerous models for scaling safer technologies and products and settled on the venture approach as the most efficient way to bring safer materials to market.
The Safer Made approach offers a significant financial return opportunity to investors and serves as a much-needed new frontier in the pro-health battle against toxic chemicals, supply chains, products, and processes. Because green chemistry principles also promote the reduction of waste, energy, and petrochemical feedstock use, investing in “benign by design” innovation protects water soil, food, air, and climate as well as health.
It’s exciting to think of the areas of our materials economy in which Safer Made can focus its resources. There are compelling market- and impact-related arguments in favor of focusing on safer stain- and water-repellent plastics, building materials, and flame retardants, to name just a few of the pipeline possibilities.
As philanthropic investors, this is our opportunity to be a catalytic force, to prove you can make money supplying companies and consumers with truly safer products that protect both humans and the planet.
For more than three decades, Rachel’s Network Member Alison Carlson has worked to turn cutting-edge knowledge—of our biology and our environment—into clear results for the public good. As founder and chair of Forsythia Foundation, she focuses on the intersection between health and the environment. To learn more about green chemistry and Safer Made, contact the Forsythia Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org.