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Dr. Mark Rossi founded the BizNGO Working Group for Safer Chemicals & Sustainable Materials 10 years ago. Below he discusses what prompted this massive undertaking, what accomplishments have been achieved, and what he hopes will come out of the upcoming 10th anniversary conference in Boston December 8-9, 2015.
Q: What prompted you to start BizNGO 10 years ago?
Mark Rossi: 10 years ago Clean Production Action (CPA) looked across the business leaders that were moving to safer chemicals and the NGO market campaigns. We saw many synergies that were happening to transform specific sectors, including health care, beauty and personal care, building products, and electronics, for example. So we brought them together in Boston to see if indeed there was common ground.
Q: What happened at that first meeting?
MR: We had approximately 30 people in the room in Boston and actually the mission that we developed, “To promote the creation and adoption of safer chemicals and sustainable materials, thereby creating market transitions to a healthy economy, healthy environment, and healthy people” very much stands today.
Q: Was there any resistance from the participants at first?
MR: Certainly in the room there was a willingness to experiment with this idea. At the first meeting, we agreed to an aspirational mission of "promoting the creation and adoption of safer chemicals and sustainable materials, thereby creating market transitions to a healthy economy, healthy environment, and healthy people." It took a while to demonstrate that this would work. Our first project, the Principles for Safer Chemicals, took a year to develop and involved intensive discussions over the vision of BizNGO. The Principles now provide a common platform that we work from. The back and forth process involved in creating the Principles was essential to our future successful collaboration. The process created trust, which has been the critical ingredient of the success of BizNGO over the years. People have called BizNGO a safe haven for open and honest conversations among businesses and NGOs.
Q: What type of conversations have emerged that are unique to this group?
MR: In general, companies only like to go public on environmental initiatives after they’re successful. So to talk upfront about the challenges they confront in trying to know the chemicals in their supply chains or identify safer alternatives is unusual. And when NGOs trust what businesses say concerning the challenges they confront it enables much conversations and agreements to solutions, including in public policy.
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Q: How has BizNGO evolved over the last decade?
MR: Our capacity to co-create reports and agree to policy positions grew dramatically over the past 10 years. We now can have open, challenging conversations on policy positions and trust that BizNGO will stay to agreed ground. Admittedly there are times when we’ve had to agree to disagree. Our input, for example, on the California Safer Consumer Product regulations has been quite impactful because it represents thoughtful, well-intentioned feedback from businesses and environmental groups on how to successfully implement a difficult law. Our recent report on Alternatives to Methylene Chloride in Paint and Varnish Strippers reflects that capacity.
Q: What do you see as the primary accomplishments of BizNGO so far (beyond the Principles for Safer Chemicals and input into the California regulations already noted)?
MR: Our most cited report is the BizNGO Alternative Assessment Protocol, which is a featured framework in reports by the National Research Council, OECD, and Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse. Our Guide to Safer Chemicals, which provides a pathway for implementation, set the foundation for the Chemical Footprint Project. When you speak to the evolution over time, we have a community of organizations that works together and gets into depth on thorny issues. For example, it was quite easy to get 11 companies to participate in our pilot of 20 questions related to the Chemical Footprint Project. Ten years ago it would have taken an incredibly long time to get companies to participate and provide honest feedback, and now we’re able to do that much quicker and get robust engagement on a faster timeline. We also created the Plastics Scorecard, which offers the first comprehensive method for assessing and reducing chemicals of high concern in plastics.
Q: What are you most excited for about this year’s conference?
MR: I’m excited about the whole concept of chemical footprinting. We launched the Chemical Footprint Project at our BizNGO 2014 Conference. This year we will dive into how to implement it. The sustainability community lacks a metric like this. Chemical footprinting is a concept that many people can intuitively understand – to have something similar to carbon and water footprinting is really powerful. At this year’s BizNGO-Chemical Footprint conference I look forward to gaining more interest and participation in chemical footprinting.
Q: What do you most enjoy about BizNGO?
MR: The people! I am honored and privileged to regularly work with some of the smartest and most effective people engaged in substituting hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. Everyone at the table is trying to transform the chemical economy from one of high hazards to safer and healthier alternatives. We’re co-developing these resources together, and there’s a type of magic that transpires.