What created these dramatic headlines? A simple law known as Sara 313, or the Superfunds Amendments and Reauthorization act. Tim Mohin, an author of the law, writes in The Guardian about how the required reporting mechanism asking companies to simply tell how much they released certain toxic substances and release that information to the public created a media frenzy. The key was that the information was concise, comparable, and addressed a specific issue. You could get your hands around how much mercury a company was releasing every year and think: how is that happening in my back yard?!?

Mr. Mohin goes on to despair of the current proliferation in sustainability reporting. While he sees benefits to the increased transparency, the movement also has its pitfalls, as he writes:

While transparency can drive comparison – and action – too much transparency can, ironically, work against the end goal of improving performance. Today’s sustainability ratings address factors ranging from environmental emissions to the diversity of the workforce to the compensation of the CEO. These myriad measurements, summed up under the umbrella of “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) metrics, are rarely presented in a way that enables easy comparison between companies. In essence, when we measure too much, we can lose the signal in the noise.

One good example of this is the Global Reporting Initiative, which advertises as the de-facto global standard for corporate sustainability reporting. It encompasses about 90 “key” performance indicators, which require companies to gather together reams of information. To put this in context, the 2014 survey for the Dow Jones Sustainability Index was 129 pages long!

Not only are these reports a lot of work, but their complexity makes them inaccessible to most people.

He then goes on to cite the organic food movements culmination in the USDA Nutrition Label as a good way forward. And that may be correct, maybe we do need a nutrition label for sustainability products as I wrote about earlier this year.  But perhaps part of the issue is that sustainability is so broad, so all-encompasing, that we need a series of more focused approaches to deal with different issues. In this way, sustainability reporting will always be 100+ pages when you are truly engaging the issue… but again, it circles back to whether or not these reports have the impact and ability to change companies. What do you think readers? Is sustainability reporting the way forward or are we diluting issues and only serving up another distraction in the form of green washing?




Clothing Facts – Should this be on all clothes?

Triple Pundit put together a great series of articles on the sustainability of the fashion industry. With thoughts of Memorial Day, I took a look at the article asking a simple question: Is made in the USA always the most sustainable choice?

The answer it seems is not so clear cut. When it comes to clothes, a number of social and environmental factors play a role in the sustainability of our purchases. Labor concerns are perhaps the most recognizable struggle of the garment industry, and the environmental impacts are nothing to blink at as Triple Pundit points out:

Among the environmental concerns associated with the clothing and textile industry are:

  • Pesticides used to protect textiles can harm wildlife, contaminate water supplies and get into the air and the food we eat.  Cotton is the most pesticide intensive crop in the world
  • Chemicals that are used to bleach and dye textiles are often toxic.
  • Discarded clothing fills up landfills. Americans generate 12.4 million tons of textile waste annually. That means that, on average, every American throws out roughly the equivalent of their own body weight in clothing every year.
  • Textile machinery causes noise, sound and air pollution.
  • Over-usage of natural resources like plants and water depletes or disturbs ecological balance. Most of this usage is in the agricultural phase, with lesser amounts in the production phase and consumption phase for laundering.

These concerns can occur anywhere, though some countries have stronger environmental regulations than others.

Now, by default garments made in the USA must adhere to EPA and local standards regarding waste water as well as labor laws, but this does not mean they have to go organic or have the smallest carbon footprint of anything available on the shelf. One of the questions we have to ask when buying any clothing is – what is it made of?

Organic boyfriend material?

This is where the Triple Pundit article begins to struggle with what the best choices are for the sustainability minded consumer as it begins to delve into the economic consequences of outsourcing manufacturing due to lowered labor costs and how that in turn reduces the power of american consumers to buy made in the USA products as they have higher labor costs and thus higher prices. A vicious cycle indeed.

While articles made in the USA carry less of a carbon footprint in terms of miles traveled, and support our economy locally by paying higher (not necessarily living) wages, these are just some of the many factors to be considered when shopping with sustainability in mind. This is well demonstrated in the OneGreenPlanet guide for those of us looking to wear green, and it considers many of the ‘other’ factors outside of location of creation.

But how about you readers – how much do you consider sustainability when buying clothes? is it all about looks or does your beauty sense go deeper than what covers your skin?  Know of any other resources on where one can shop for green clothes? Do you have any clothing that you consider green or fair trade?


Going green often starts with what you eat: fair trade tea, organic apples. We buy these products because they reduce impacts on people and planet. But when we go to the Pharmacy to pick up our needed medicines, we often remain uninformed of these issues. Who ever heard of organic Lipitor?

Though the pharmaceutical industry takes great strides to ensure a reliable and safe supply chain as demanded by FDA safety regulations, a lack of awareness of the environmental impacts of the pharmaceutical supply chain led to an atmosphere which made the Heparin Incident possible. People died as a result.

Business for Social Responsibility(BSR), an international NGO dedicated to promoting ethics and environmental sustainability in multinational corporations, created the Pharmaceutical Supply Chain Initiative (PSCI) to address these essential issues. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Andrew Matthews, Manager of Advisory Services at BSR and discuss their work in this and other areas:

“BSR [does] a lot of different types of work, we do a lot of strategy…number one: how you set your CSR priorities and then integrate those with the core business strategy and measure those over time. And we also do a lot of work with supply chain sustainability so looking at ethics, labor, environment, health, safety and management systems, help companies put the protocols into place to help manage their suppliers in an effective way and further sustainability. My focus, [in addition to] supply chain, is on industry, on healthcare, we focus on social innovation, focusing on emerging markets…”

Andrew was able to draw on his diverse experience of work both internationally and in the investor community in order to further services at BSR. Having worked in a variety of prior roles including a corporate strategy startup in DC where “we helped fortune 500 companies understand the political and economic environments of BRIC countries” and a year teaching English in Malayasia, Andrew has a unique and distinctive perspective on the challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry. His overall trajectory towards corporate social responsibility (CSR) started in college. While researching business ethics he learned “how the private sector was doing a lot to further Millennium Development Goals and was often making a bigger impact, a more measurable impact than non-profits – which was where I was working at the time.” He finds his work at BSR satisfying and empowering as “its really a great marriage of development and private sector financial sector thinking – applying commercial solutions to social problems.” Currently, his work focuses both on healthcare and medical device industry initiatives in addition to PSCI.

On the origins and overall goals of the PSCI, Andrew explained:

“There is an initiative in industry called the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and they came together as an industry to understand how they could improve their supply chain, both from procurement and selecting suppliers, and evaluating them in audits, to improving them through supplier capacity building initiatives and monitoring them over time. We saw an opportunity to do that in the pharmaceutical industry. So, in 2006, four companies came together and put together a set of principles that govern responsible supply chain management.  After those principles were released, between ‘07 and ‘09, there was an explosion of interest and now we are up to 17 companies.”


EICC – Model for BSR’s PSCI

BSR was not satisfied with having simply another declaration that companies could put in their marketing material. BSR wanted to take this out of the boardroom and into the field. Andrew elaborated on this point:

“From the time we set the principles into place, we thought how do we put them into practice. So we launched an audit program, that sends in site auditors preferably with pharmaceutical experience, to look at these suppliers and how they match PSCI principles whether they are living up to them and then they create an audit report that is shared amongst all the members. They evaluate the suppliers against criteria our members have established, which include ethics labor environment, health, safety and management systems. Then we also provide resources for these suppliers to learn more about what they can do related to sustainability, so we have an online library for suppliers, in 2014 we are having teleconferences and a workshop in China actually in 2013 we held a conference in Europe on industrial hygiene and a lot of suppliers in Europe attended that and enjoyed it. We have seen rising interest from suppliers and it’s poised to grow.”

The field of responsible supply chain management is growing, and no sector exemplifies the challenges and possibilities more than that of pharmaceuticals. Understanding the implications of factories on the health of their workers and environment, as well as the multiple different chemical components needed to manufacture a single drug, are the key issues that need addressing in this sector. As the heparin incident exemplifies, these issues can rapidly deteriorate into one where patients are harmed if supply chains are not properly managed. And companies are listening and beginning to engage:

“One of the biggest reasons PSCI members get involved is because they see supply chain as a business risk, because if the supplier explodes, to put it bluntly, will affect the ability to get millions of dollars of product to the market. They see it as a significant risk and take it seriously. They see sustainability more and more as a valid set of issues to take into their analyses.”

As the PSCI eloquently shows, sustainability and collaboration can go hand in hand. Through sharing information, the industry is able to move forward together. While PSCI shares some information publicly, it is hoped that through further transparency and embracing the principles of open source, the entire field of pharmaceutical manufacturing can benefit from the breakthroughs of these leading companies.

Mapping the Anthropocene

Human enterprise, whether it be business, government or science has evolved in the direction of super-specialization since the dawn of agriculture and permanent human settlements. Super-specialists provide essential expertise in their individual arenas, however the challenge of sustainability as a profession lies in its ability to see the connections across traditional disciplines and understand the environmental impacts of human activities at all levels.

The scale of human activity today is unique in history for its pace and breadth. It is widely recognized that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history (, and our impacts are so great that geologists debate whether we have left the Holocene to enter the Antrhopocene ( – see video at bottom). In this period of global transition, for the first time sentient life can influence the direction of change. To do so, we must rely upon our ability to understand the scale of our impacts, from the international level down to the individual.

There is an old adage in business that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Thanks to investments in satellite and communications technology, the genomics revolution, as well as the creation and growth of the internet, today humanity is increasingly able to amass large-scale datasets on almost all aspects of life and geochemical processes on Earth. Examples include:

We are literally floating in a sea of data.  Multinational scientific reports, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, are examples of science using the power of distributed scholarly expertise in a collaborative manner to analyze the plethora of data on how humans are impacting the environment. One of the challenges and opportunities for Sustainability Professionals will be the ability to harness existing datasets  through the power of analytics and informatics. Given our multi-disciplinary nature, Sustainability Professionals are ideally situated to understand, monitor, measure and manage our impacts as a species at all scales of social organization, from multinational corporations using the Global Reporting Initiative’s Guidelines, to individuals using a smartphone apps to measure their carbon footprint.

The analysis of already existing datasets, together with strategic augmentation in monitoring, will allow us to realize the goals of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development to price externalities of our current economic activity, starting with carbon and then expanding to biodiversity and ecosystem services. The OECD Environmental Outlook 2050 also called for an improvement in our knowledge base for sustainability decision making. They gave examples of hydrological monitoring networks, data/indicators for biodiversity, and greater studies into the human/natural physiological impacts of chemical products. The Exposome ( is one example of how we can use these new datasets and analytical tools to understand human-environment interactions.

To promote Sustainability, either at home, work, or in your networks, one must first collect and analyze any available data regarding current environmental impacts. This can seem to be a daunting task, but breaking down our impacts into categories, such as food consumption, energy, water use, transportation etc., can make things more manageable –  and there are many available toolsets to measure these impacts. Every day we vote with our dollars, on transportation, food, energy and communications, by being conscientious of our collective purchasing power we can drive sustainable change.


When science fiction:

Becomes science fact:

Chico and his family

Today marks the 25th anniversary of death of Chico Mendes, a union leader and environmental activist who fought for the protection of the Amazon and pioneered the use of extractive reserves. In a tale that is familiar today, Mendez fought for sustainable use of the forest while cattle ranchers sought to clear the land. As The Guardian reports:

Mendes was an obvious target. As well as lobbying successfully to end international financing for Amazon clearance, he organised the rubber tappers in non-violent resistance. Men, women and children would form human barricades known as “empates” to prevent the bulldozers from tearing down trees. His success made him many enemies and he knew he was a marked man.

His killer was from a family of cattle ranchers, whose efforts to expand their pastures was held up by the empates. Darcy Alves, 22, and his father Darly were convicted in 1990 and jailed for 19 years. Although they are now free, former associates of Mendes said the assassination backfired. “Those who killed Chico got it wrong. They thought by killing him, the tappers’ movement would be demobilised, but they made him immortal. His ideas still have a huge influence,” said Gomercindo Rodriquez, who came to Xapuri as a young agronomist in 1986, and later became Mendes’s trusted adviser.

Mendes wanted the forest to be used sustainably rather than cut off from economic activity (as some environmentalists wanted) or cut down (as the farmers wanted). He proposed the establishment of extractive reserves for tappers, Brazil nut collectors and others who harvested nature in a balanced way. After his death the first of many such reserves in Brazil, the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve, was created, covering 1m hectares of forest around Xapuri.

After years of decline, the demand for latex from a local condom factory has boosted the price of rubber, and many tappers, who had turned to raising cattle, have returned to the forest. “This is Chico’s legacy,” said Gomercindo. “The extractive reserves have meant the preservation of the forest – all around it has been destroyed for cattle pasture. They have become an example, they now exist in other areas of Brazil.”

A day to remember and reflect on those who fight for the voiceless forest and her downtrodden people. Read more at The Guardian.


Old French colonial rubber plantations provided much of the firewood for garment factories in Cambodia, until recently

Cambodia has seen a dramatic rise in its garment industry, from around 25,000 workers in 2000 to over 500,000 today. The Garment industry now accounts for over 80% of Cambodia’s exports, making itself a major economic player in this small country of 14 million people within a relatively short time period. Much of that growth has been driven by the rise of living standards in China. No, China is not the prime export market for Cambodian garments, that would be the US and EU. However, the rising wages and increasingly enforced environmental protections are making Chinese garment factories unsuitable for business, as Bloomberg reports:

“Cambodia is just like China was 20 years ago. It’s on the verge of a big expansion,” says Fung, a 40-year veteran of the business who may open more factories outside Phnom Penh…“In Cambodia, people are happy to have a job,” says Fung. “But in China we keep losing workers. Whether we like it or not, we will be moving out.”… The countries [Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indosnesia] all have young people willing to work for less. In Cambodia, that means $76 for a 60-hour workweek. Chinese workers get from $280 in Jiangxi province to $460 in Shenzhen. That’s take-home pay in his factory for 48 hours work, including overtime, says Fung.

While in 2010, China produced 43.6 percent of rich countries’ apparel imports, that number shrank to 36.8 percent in the first half of last year, estimates Clothesource. The stronger yuan, stricter enforcement of environmental rules, and rising wages are pushing production out.

The shift of garment factories from China to southeast Asia has had a curious spillover effect on natural resources within Cambodia. As more and more garment factories are built with keeping costs as low as possible, the reliance of these factories on wood burning boilers continues to grow, as the NYT reports:

The majority of the country’s garment factories — making clothes for brand names in the U.S. and European markets — use firewood to heat old-fashioned boilers that produce hot water for dying fabrics and steam for ironing.

Some factories depend on firewood to supply all of their energy needs, according to industry experts.

Indeed, the use of firewood for energy is widely considered better for the environment than fossil fuels, as trees can be replanted to offset carbon emissions released during combustion. But replanting plans are limited here, while demand for firewood is growing.

In the 1990s, large areas of Cambodia’s rubber plantations — planted by the French in the early 20th century — had aged to the point where their yields of latex, the sap from which natural rubber is made, had dropped considerably, requiring extensive replanting. Felling old trees made large quantities of rubber wood available to the emerging garment and brick factories in the Phnom Penh region. But, according to a report released last year by the French environmental organization Geres, this source of timber is running out.

The Geres report found that 69 of the 310 garment factories then registered with the manufacturers’ association said they were using rubber wood to produce steam for ironing and dyeing clothes. In total, Geres estimated that garment factories burned around 65,000 cubic meters, or about 2.3 million cubic feet, of wood every month.

But a “critical period” started in 2009, the report said, “where rubber wood will not be available in sufficient quantity to supply the industrial sector its energy requirements.” Energy experts and environmentalists say that timber is now being obtained instead from the country’s remaining natural-growth forests.

So an economic and social shift, from lower to higher wages in China along with increased capacity and demand for environmental enforcement, now has lead to an environmental shift with a new demand on Cambodia’s forests possibly leading to increased deforestation… The NYT then went on to discuss how these wood fired boilers need to be replaced by more sustainable sources of power, but that the economic realities of the garment industry, and its reason (low costs) for being in Cambodia in the first place are holding back progress:

“The bottom line is this industry — in particular the garment sector — is the toughest sector in terms of competition,” he said. “Some people just can’t afford to make some of the changes that are being recommended.”

And according to several economic analysts and consultants here, who declined to be named because of the delicacy of the issue, it is not in the interests of manufacturers to show they can afford to install environmentally friendly technologies, because their brand-name clients may respond by putting pressure on them to lower their costs.

Another intractable trans-boundary global resource problem is uncovered: how do we provide global markets with affordable clothes while at the same time promoting sustainable development? Perhaps the uniquely dominant position of the Garment factories in Cambodia represent an opportunity for  a sector wide solution, one that a collaboration of NGOs/CSR advocates, civil society and Corporations could work together on to find the best way forward for reducing the demands of Cambodia’s garment districts on the environment… perhaps we need Collective Impact Clothing…

Or is the nature of the garment industry incompatible with environmental protections and living wages? Are we at the end of cheap clothes? What do you think?

Kurt Vonnegut’s vision of the Chronosynchlastic Infidibulum has come true, except instead of our bodies being dispersed across interstellar space,  it is our everyday products that are dispersed over space and time across the globe. Networks of suppliers are mirrored by social networks with information flowing (relatively) freely to anyone with a wifi connection… and informed consumers are now scrutinizing their purchases to a greater degree than ever before. The rise of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement fueled an expectation of transparency amongst the multi-nationals that operate from a nominal home base but only truly coalesce as a product in your living room, or in this case a consulting report for building a dam.


Rumfoord’s dog Kazak materializing on Titan

Poyry, with over 5000 employees, is one of the largest international consulting design firms in the world and a major economic player in its home base of Helsinki, Finland. Yet Poyry’s work reaches far from Finalnd, and its role in the Xayaburi dam project represents a case of how the evolving legal concepts around CSR are starting to provide a mechanism through which stakeholders can influence company policies. As The Diplomat reports:

The Xayaburi dam project has been the subject of an international consultation process under the auspices of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which comprises four member states: Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam

But the MRC has split between Laos and Thailand, which support the dam (Thailand is providing all the funding and will purchase 95% of the power generated), and Cambodia and Vietnam, which view dams on the Mekong as a cumulative threat to agriculture, fisheries and livelihoods.

Scientists warn that a cascade of dams threaten food security along the Mekong for around 65 million people. The prime minsters of both Cambodia and Vietnam have demanded further scientific studies on downriver impacts to be carried out prior to any construction, but supported by Pöyry’s recommendations, Laos has ignored its Indochina neighbors.

It was the deadlock inside the MRC that prompted the government of Laos to hire Zurich-based Pöyry Energy, allegedly with a view to circumventing the consultation procedures laid down by the 1995 Mekong Treaty

In response, fourteen Finnish NGOs filed a landmark case against Pöyry, alleging that it had violated OECD rules. Finland was obliged to set up a Corporate Social Responsibility Committee in 2012, to hear the complaint against parent firm Pöyry PLC, the parent company in Helsinki.

As the largest donor to the MRC, Finland has a special interest in the Xayaburi controversy. All development partners of the MRC have expressed deep concerns about the environmental impacts of Xayaburi,   the first dam to be built on the Lower Mekong.

The Finnish NGOs have accused the international consultant Pöyry of promoting a reckless and irresponsible mode of development, and undermining international cooperation among the riparian countries through the Mekong River Commission.

Pöyry has since announced that it has won a new eight-year contract to supervise construction of the Xayaburi dam.

Poyry’s work on the Xayaburi was not the first time the company was involved with the Mekong. In the 1990’s, Vietnam hired Swiss consultant Electrowatt (now part of Poyry) to build a controversial set of dams on a tributary to the Mekong in Vietnam, despite the protests of Cambodia. Like the situation in Xayaburi, Electrowatt’s analysis did not include any downstream impacts from the dam construction. The case of the Yali Dam set a precedent for ignoring regional neighbors, and it appears Laos took note of a compliant consultant to hire.

OECD guidelines stipulate that “Enterprises should contribute to economic, environmental and social progress with a view to achieving sustainable development”.  Poyry’s role in shepherding along approval of the dam in Laos and its subsequent multi-million dollar contract to oversee construction, present an affront to the OECD guidelines, not to mention a conflict of interest.


Protesters downstream of the proposed dam referring to Poyry’s role in the process

This was clear to the group of over a dozen Finnish NGO’s who sued Poyry, claiming the company was in violation of international law and undermining the Mekong River Commission as detailed on the Business and Human Rights Resource Center. The case ultimately went to the Finnish Ministry of Employment and Economy for a ruling from its committee on Corporate Social Responsibility. Through a series of secretly submitted documents, Poyry was ultimately able to escape any sanctions for its behavior in the case, as OECD Watch reports:

The final statement confirms that consulting and business service companies such as Pöyry are covered by the Guidelines and have a responsibility to conduct due diligence to avoid being linked to adverse social and environmental impacts caused by their clients. However, the NCP determined that Pöyry had not acted in breach of the Guidelines in this case. Finnwatch, an NGO advising the NCP, issued a statement disputing this finding.

The case, which was the first ever handled by the Finnish NCP, raises serious concerns about the NCPs equitability. The NCP gave in to Pöyrys demands for an excessive degree of confidentiality and did not allow the complainants to see or rebut to the companys response to the allegations. The NCP based part of its final statement on Pöyrys confidential response, which was never shared with the complainants a practice that has been deemed unacceptable by other NCPs. Recall that a similar lack of equitability led the UK NCPs Steering Board to overturn its own flawed final statement in the BP BTC case in 2011.

Regardless of the ultimate result, the case presents an example of the maturing of the CSR field from a series of well-(or not)-intentioned yet unverified reports of corporate progress to a verifiable and accountable set of policies and actions taken by corporations with true legal and economic consequences. Though it was the first case heard by the Finnish government regarding OECD CSR guidelines, it will certainly not be the last, and that type of precedent is one other stakeholders can utilize to address social and environmental concerns.

When it comes to intractable trans-boundary natural resource problems, which the Mekong is a prime example of, the more stakeholders with a voice at the table the better the outcomes can be. Consultants and coprorations operating in the developing world would do well to consider the full sustainability impacts of their operations lest they find themselves in greater legal risk from newly emerging models of regulation in regards to CSR.

What do you think? Are new legal mechanisms for CSR compliance (e.g. OECD Guidelines) an effective means to enforce good corporate governance? Or do they need more teeth to make an impact? Feel free to share thought and any similar examples.


Holes in the heparin supply chain lead to deaths across the US

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, FDA Commissioner, details the FDA’s growing partnership with organizations, health authorities and governments in the Mekong Region to ensure safe food and medicine delivery to the US, while also improving medication reliability in the Mekong. Another highlight of how global supply chains are making national borders less relevant in this post-Westphalian globalized world we live in. The FDA’s cooperation represents a step in the right direction to derive  a benefit both for the US (whose taxpayers fund all this activity) as well as the citizens of the Mekong Region. As Commissioner Hamburg explains:

Though Americans may not often think about it, the U.S. is increasingly and inextricably linked to the Mekong Region through global supply chains. For instance, about 15% of the seafood we consume in the United States comes from Mekong region countries, arriving on our shores and in our stores after a long and circuitous journey. Consider tuna, which may be caught in the South Pacific, transported to New Zealand for pre-canning, and shipped to Southeast Asia for canning before it finally makes its way to the East Coast of the United States for distribution in this country.

Why does this matter to FDA? There is a greater likelihood that food will be exposed to pathogens, contaminants or chemical hazards during a journey of this complexity. That’s why we work closely with our regional counterparts in these countries through such organizations as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), sharing with them our own regulatory requirements, our knowledge of good manufacturing practices and our laboratory and inspection techniques. Through such information sharing we believe we can prevent tainted or otherwise unsafe foods from reaching our borders.

But the risk of potentially unsafe food from this area is not our only concern. A significant threat to human safety today involves substandard, falsified and counterfeit medical products that are part of the global supply chain. These products may contain toxic ingredients, or too much or too little of a drug’s active ingredient, and as a result patients could be poisoned or unwittingly receive inadequate treatment for their disease or even no treatment at all. In addition, if too many patients receive only partial treatment, it might foster the development of drug-resistant disease strains. And there’s this too: a high prevalence of substandard and falsified medicines ultimately will erode public trust in the health care system.

See more at:

With the recent change in guidelines from the AHA and ACC, as many as 70 million Americans may end up taking Statins to reduce their chance of heart attack and stroke. Already, Lipitor (atorvastatin) was the greatest selling medication of modern times with over 40 million Americans taking the drug at its peak. At an average of 20 mg per pill, this resulted in over 292 metric tons of lipitor produced per year*.

At 250 Tons, Hong Kong’s Tian Tan Buddha weighs less than the lipitor consumed every year in the US

Despite this large scale, few outside of the Green Chemistry field are aware of the myriad of environmental impacts from the supply chains used to produce Lipitor.  Creating Lipitor requires a complex series of chemical reactions. Along the way, various different solvents, raw materials and catalysts are needed to finally create the active pharmacological ingredient that can reduce cholesterol in humans.


Synthesis of Atorvastatin(Lipitor), courtesy of

Acetonitrile is one solvent used in the synthesis of Lipitor. Acetontirile is produced from the catalytic ammoxidation of propylene. Propylene (aka propene) is itself derived from fossil fuels, namely natural gas and coal.  The industrially produced ammonia used in the process comes from Natural Gas. Aside from the odd fact that your cholesterol is lowered at least in part thanks to fossil fuels, there is also the case of the Beijing Olympics.

Beijing’s Air – The Olympics were a temporary respite

Beijing’s notorious air pollution was under the microscope prior to the 2008 Olympic Games. The Chinese authorities instituted a number of measures, such as shutting down factories near the city and reducing car use, to clean up the air. Some of these factories were producers of Acetonitrile. Those closures, combined with the shutdown of Texan facilities impacted by Hurricane Ike, resulted in a global shortage of Acetonitrile.  The shortage of Acetonitrile resulted in a price spike, directly impacting the bottom line of all those that use the solvent, including pharmaceutical companies.

This small lesson highlights how understanding the supply chain of your products could have potentially resulted in avoiding a commodity price spike…and the embarrassing, or potentially liable, connection to worsening health outcomes in heavily polluted developing countries…

On the flip side of these petrochemical derived substances is a potential opening for renewable supplies and green chemistry. Ammonia, which accounts for over 1% of total global energy use, is possible to derive from renewable electricity when using Hydrogen derived by hydrolysis (see Iceland). Propylene is also a target of green chemistry with some companies using microbes to synthesize the needed compound rather than relying on natural gas or coal.


J. Craig Venter is collaborating with Exxon to create biofuels from algae

But back to Big Pharma. Supply chain accountability starts at the bench: each solvent, catlalyst and substrate has its own set of sources and associated impacts. Following the principles of Green Chemistry keeps the focus in the right direction, but a broader view is needed in the industry to ensure that price spikes such as the Acetonitrile incident don’t happen again. If Acentonitrile came from sustainable sources, or if a green alternative was found, Pharma companies could have used their engagement with the manufacturers to not only show their commitment to the environment but also ensure a reliable source of solvent  with less potential liability from the downstream health effects of their suppliers. And that’s a strategy that works for the triple bottom line.

*Unofficial back of the envelope calculations figuring 20mg avg statin pill API * 1 dose per day * 40,000,000 patients * 365 days/yr = 292,000,000,0000 mg or 292 metric tonnes.