Today’s manufacturers can face challenges in developing safe, sustainable products. Sustainable chemistry and UL Solutions can help.

Manufacturers and retailers face growing demands for sustainable products and environmentally friendly processes. Whether they need to meet regulations or consumers’ desires, many turn to sustainable and socially responsible practices, such as carbon-neutral or zero-waste manufacturing. However, one part of product development that businesses may overlook is sustainable chemistry.

Developing sustainable consumer products requires understanding their chemical composition and sustainably manufacturing chemicals. This allows companies to be sure the materials and processes involved in production will not harm people or the environment. Green chemistry — manufacturing chemicals through sustainable methods — is crucial in developing sustainable consumer products.

Selecting sustainable chemicals

Manufacturing sustainable products may require reformulating materials to replace problematic chemicals. Manufacturers should start by checking Manufacturing Restricted Substance Lists (MRSL) and Restricted Substance Lists (RSL) for chemicals used in their products. These lists provide information about regulations and laws that limit or exclude specific chemicals and substances in consumer products. Any listed substances found in a product need replacement.

Choosing alternative chemicals can be complex; they must meet the same or similar functional properties, have more favorable hazard profiles and be economically feasible for the manufacturer. Additionally, not every problematic chemical is included in MRSLs or RSLs. Potential alternative chemicals should undergo a chemical hazard assessment for possible unacceptable human health and environmental hazards.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published guidance for identifying and selecting safer chemical alternatives.1 OECD emphasizes hazard and exposure as key considerations and follows the principles of risk assessment rather than hazard assessment alone. Both RSLs and Chemical Alternative Assessment frameworks are included in some UL sustainability Standards, including UL 110, the Standard for Sustainability for Mobile Phones, and ECOLOGO® Standards for formulated products.

Developing sustainable chemicals

If no alternative chemical is available to replace a problematic one, it may be necessary to manufacture a new chemical. The principles of green chemistry and sustainable chemistry provide guidance for developing suitable alternatives.

Green chemistry focuses on designing and manufacturing chemicals more sustainably with lower hazard profiles without sacrificing functional properties and economic viability.2 Sustainable chemistry, however, is a comprehensive framework that considers the role of chemicals within a circular economy.3 It incorporates green chemistry while considering whether chemicals and materials can be replaced through product design changes and whether the product can be replaced through other services or approaches. Regardless of the method, the outcome should be the development of green chemicals with acceptable health and environmental safety profiles.

Sustainable chemistry is a comprehensive framework that considers the role of chemicals within a circular economy of products.

Using sustainable chemicals in a circular economy

Sustainability practices are moving toward a circular economy, which is an economic model designed to produce safer and useful products while minimizing resource inputs, waste and emissions. Circularity looks at the whole value chain — keeping materials and products in circulation as long as possible, creating as much value as possible and recycling components or materials into new products at the end of each product or service life.

Some develop circular products by manufacturing products using recycled materials as raw ingredients. However, this necessitates assessing recycled raw ingredients and their material composition for problematic chemicals retained or created in the recycling processes. Additionally, producers of recycled raw ingredients will continue to face pressure from brand owners to stay within the allowed limits of restricted substances and the performance characteristics of recycled raw ingredients and materials, assessing these through testing, verification and certification. Using green chemicals to manufacture raw ingredients can reduce the chance of introducing harmful chemicals to the process and product.

Where recycling is not feasible, efforts are underway to develop rapidly biodegradable materials. However, creating biodegradable materials is challenging, as they are rarely exposed to the appropriate conditions to degrade as intended. There are growing concerns that biodegradable plastics may release microplastics and problematic chemicals with potentially adverse health and environmental consequences.

There is a need for collaborative research between material manufacturers and standards organizations. Together, they must work to establish the necessary conditions for demonstrating effective and safe biodegradation and then develop standards relevant to real-world conditions.

Helping improve the quality, safety and sustainability of products with UL Solutions

UL Solutions is at the forefront of efforts to verify the quality, safety and sustainability of ingredients, materials and components. The goal is to help manufacturers, brand owners and consumers feel confident in product performance, safety and sustainability. Available services include:

Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) certification and testing: ZDHC programs help manage textile, leather and footwear supply chains to reduce the use and amount of hazardous chemicals discharged.

UL certification of materials and products: Comprehensive services to assess the safety, performance and sustainability of plastics, engineered materials and final products.

Supply chain insights: UL Solutions’ global compliance expertise, data and advanced software offerings help provide transparency and end-to-end compliance throughout the product life cycle.

Product stewardship programs: Proactively develop and select safer and sustainable materials, products and suppliers through stewardship programs aimed to minimize the negative impacts of a product throughout its life cycle.

ESG and sustainability management software platforms: Help businesses track and measure environmental, supply chain, health and safety management and sustainability data.

As chemical regulations increase, restricted substance lists expand, and consumers push for sustainable products, knowing what chemicals make up the materials in products is essential. While manufacturing with sustainable chemistry presents challenges, pursuing ways to make your products healthier and more sustainable is not just necessary — it’s the right thing to do.

Learn about manufacturing through sustainable chemistry and contact UL Solutions with questions.

  1. OECD (2021), Guidance on Key Considerations for the Identification and Selection of Safer Chemical Alternative, OECD Series on Risk Management, No. 60, Environment, Health and Safety, Environment Directorate.
  2. P. T. Anastas, J. C. Warner, Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.
  3. K. Kümmerer, A.-K. Amsel, D. Bartkowiak, A. Bazzanella, C. Blum, C. Cinquemani, Key Characteristics of Sustainable Chemistry Towards a Common Understanding of Sustainable Chemistry, Dialogue Paper by the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3), Bonn, Germany, 2021 

To find out more about UL Solutions and the services they provide to the retail industry, click here.

This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.