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The ACS Green Chemistry Institute®: a case study of partnerships to promote sustainability in the chemical enterprise

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The Green Chemistry Institute (GCI) is an 11-year old organization whose mission is to promote green chemistry throughout the chemical enterprise and around the world. GCI focuses both on disseminating science-based knowledge and information for sustainable impact, as well as the process of building a community of practice around the issue of sustainability in the chemical enterprise. One of the main motivations behind the creation of GCI was the realization that there was a role for a nimble organization that could quickly provide support, including funding, for small projects that would demonstrate the viability of green chemistry to many sectors of industry. Partners have changed over the years, as GCI’s activities and organizational structure have evolved. In terms of being classified as a “partnership,” GCI is an interesting case. At its founding, it was clearly an independently functioning multi-sectoral partnership. After several years, in order to improve stability, it aligned with, and then became fully a part of, the American Chemical Society (ACS). Especially in the past few years, it would be difficult to say definitively whether it is a partnership between different sectors (as its governing board still has multisectoral membership), an inter-NGO alliance between ACS and GCI, or just one more department in a large NGO (ACS). The largest challenges faced by the partnership have been those related to its own sustainability, both financial and organizational. However, solutions to the issue of ensuring GCI’s long-term stability brought with them a trade-off in terms of freedom of action and nimbleness. This trade-off has presented itself multiple times, and has been at the core of the challenge faced by both ACS and GCI in their “merger.” GCI, for the large part, has always been run and driven by the people doing the work. This has changed from a volunteer membership to a permanent staff. For a long time, it could be categorized as “controlled chaos—but productive.” In the past year, it has been less able to seek out, or become involved with, new projects and partnerships than it has in the past. The pace of its activities have been slowed through human resource and organizational constraints. This should change in the near future, with the arrival of the first full-time director in over 18 months, who began working at GCI in March, 2008. Looking back over the history of GCI, its success can be seen as mixed. There are some areas in which they have been extremely effective. This includes the creation of a large and vibrant international network, the production and dissemination of educational materials and opportunities, and in outreach to the larger community. However, the structural challenges have also provided significant barriers. At the outset, GCI’s effectiveness was limited by funding and staffing constraints; most of the work fell onto a handful of partners. While they were certainly dedicated, this limited the reach of the Institute. When GCI gained stability from its merger with ACS, it also lost its ability to react quickly to the needs of the community it was trying to serve. It has become less of a partnership, and more of a traditional NGO—and in reality, one relatively small (though high profile) piece of a much larger, highly visible organization. It is no longer clear what niche GCI fills. In terms of overall impact, and the ability to take advantage of leverage points that would allow it to be a real catalyst for change, it faces serious competition from some of the newer institutes belonging to the high profile green chemistry champions like John Warner and Paul Anastas. The effectiveness of GCI may have fluctuated over time, but from all appearances, its goal of promoting green chemistry is increasingly successful. Over the past few years there has been a marked increase in attention to green chemistry on the part of industry, academia, and even the general public. This is likely related to an overall increase in environmental awareness and concern in the United States. But the technologies are maturing, and many now have had time to prove themselves to be effective and profitable in a range of industries. Changes in the financial situation, especially rising energy prices, as well as regulatory changes in the EU (REACH) and other major markets, have also been stimuli for green chemistry. GCI’s work over the past decade has helped to make sure that green chemistry was available as a key response to these challenges. But as environmental concerns become a part of core strategies for many firms, it also increasesthe number of technical problems to be addressed, and creates a market demand for information and expertise that cannot be filled by a single organization. GCI’s challenge, if it wishes to have an impact on sustainability, is to define for itself and the community its core strengths, and to pursue those areas where it can have an impact. The controlled chaos that could be effective in a new, emerging field is no longer strategically effective as the same field matures. At the same time, that does not mean that GCI can no longer impact sustainability. GCI can take advantage of its position within ACS to spread an attitude within ACS that green chemistry is an element of all of the areas in which it operates, which would in turn translate into making green chemistry a common element across the chemical enterprise outside of ACS. ACS should be leveraged as a resource—not just of funds, but as a way to access a broad spectrum of stakeholders. Additionally, GCI has a long history of actively engaging partners from a variety of sectors. Even if it is operating from deep within ACS, it could still retain a partnership model for many of its endeavors. There are a large number of people within the green chemistry community that may no longer be involved with GCI, but are still invested in its success. If GCI disappears, they fear that it would provide an opportunity for skeptics to write off green chemistry more generally. This is an incentive for members of the community of practice that GCI has worked so hard to create to support GCI in turn, if only to protect their own long-term interests. GCI could, theoretically, take advantage of this in order to create more creative, effective partnerships throughout the community. GCI’s expertise in facilitating these kinds of activities, more than its experience with conferences, symposia, or educational activities, may be its strategic advantage in the current environment.

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