Is “chemical” still the right word?

The public has a mixed relationship with the word “chemical”. On the one hand, it means solutions to the planets pressing problems. On the other, it implies an industry with a checkered past and a reputation (sometimes undeserved, but not always) for pollution and scant regard for communities.

Talk to any sustainability executive in the chemical industry and you will hear that the ultimate aim of companies that are invested in the sustainability movement is to be innovators of materials and solutions. While their company logos may reference chemicals, the description of their futures hardly mentions it.

(The word “material” is not an easy one either. A former colleague, Dr. Bob Davenport of SRI Consulting, memorably described materials as chemicals put to use — the stage beyond being a chemical is a material.)

Perhaps the day is not too far off when chemical companies start to rebrand themselves as sustainable solutions providers. Dow’s Andrew Liveris certainly seems to think so. Receiving an award recently, he mused on the word:  “ . . . Chemical—the adjective—is no longer, in my view, big or broad enough to describe the industry we love, the work we do, or the future we seek to build.” I think that Liveris is right in this view (read more about his speech in an excellent analysis by ChemWeek’s Rob Westervelt at The chemical industry is in a state of transition from commodity and specialty producer to solutions provider. It is part of the march towards a sustainable future.