Ten years ago, we launched the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC) — a framework to advance green chemistry in higher education. Today, more than 100 organizations from across the globe have signed the commitment, supporting a more sustainable future for us all.
As we gear up to celebrate 10 years of the GCC, we sat down with Beyond Benign Co-Founder Dr. Amy Cannon to reflect on how the GCC has grown in the last decade and look toward the future of green chemistry education.
Amy is the first person to achieve a Ph.D. in green chemistry and is a leader in advancing the field. But for Amy, advancing green chemistry is a community effort. In this conversation, Amy shares more about the beginnings of the GCC and Beyond Benign’s goals to support green chemistry in higher education.
This summer, Beyond Benign is celebrating 10 years of the Green Chemistry Commitment (GCC). How are you feeling about this milestone for the green chemistry movement?
It’s a really exciting time, particularly because we’ve seen so much growth in the past couple of years. There’s still so much more to do, but there’s been a lot of momentum in academia toward greener chemistry.
Part of the goal of the GCC was to foster and support systemic change in chemistry education, and I think we are getting closer to that. It’s a super hard thing to do. But we’ve come a long way.
At the beginning of the GCC, was it difficult to find institutions willing to sign on?
When we first created the Green Chemistry Commitment, folks were really worried that it was a prescriptive approach. We had to do a lot of communication around the fact that it isn’t prescriptive. The diversity of approaches that people use to bring green chemistry to their teaching and practice is something we want to celebrate and elevate and highlight. It’s so valuable for others to recognize their own path.
Why did you decide to create a “commitment” instead of just providing institutional support?
We were trying to support the individual champions of green chemistry. Oftentimes green chemistry starts with one faculty member who’s working by themselves to bring green chemistry to what they do. We wanted to think of ways to support that one individual in bringing green chemistry to their whole department. Otherwise, when that individual leaves that institution, what’s left behind? Are we actually creating change?
When you say that the GCC is “by the community, for the community,” what does that mean in practice?
When we first had this idea, I wanted to share it with our community and get their feedback. I wanted to know if they thought it was a good idea and how they would set it up. So we created a faculty advisory board that could take the idea, break it down, and put it back together in a structured way that could work for institutions. From the beginning, we’ve really listened to the community.
Now we try to keep listening to understand what needs the signers have. What things will help support faculty to make these changes? The mini-grants we’re able to give out to signers came from listening to the community.
It seems like community and collaboration are a huge emphasis in your leadership style.
I don’t think any one person can do any of this alone. No one organization can do any of this alone. So it’s really important to find others who can lead in these spaces. I continue to work on finding new leaders that can step up, and I focus on elevating their voices. That diversity of voices is so important.
We also partner with other organizations on a regular basis, because we’re a small nonprofit. We have limited resources. We have limited bandwidth. Other organizations bring in really unique expertise that we might not have. We can complement each other and elevate our collective missions.
There are so many people working in this space that bring so much value to the equation. It doesn’t make sense to not work together.
Do you think you’ve changed as a leader over the course of time that you’ve been leading at Beyond Benign?
Probably. I definitely didn’t know what I was doing when I started. And I still feel that way in some instances. But I think admitting that you don’t know is a good skill. That’s when you need other perspectives. It’s important to ask for support and admit you don’t know it all. In my opinion, that’s one of the most valuable things that leaders can do: listen.
One of the things I’m trying to be better at is recognizing that I do have a lot of experience in this space. Traditionally I’m a little bit more passive. I’m working on realizing when I should step up and say, “We have expertise in this space. Let’s share that expertise. Let’s lead here.” Leading doesn’t mean plowing over others. It’s about coming to the table and offering that expertise.
You were the first Ph.D. in green chemistry. How have you seen the field change over time?
Originally, people had this perspective that having a green chemistry degree as opposed to just straight chemistry would somehow restrict or limit my opportunities. And I thought that was really interesting. I remember getting a question like, “Don’t you feel like getting a Ph.D. in green chemistry will limit your job opportunities?” And my answer was “Why would I ever want to work for someone if they didn’t want me to do green chemistry?”
I think that has changed a lot. I graduated with my Ph.D. in 2005, and there were a lot of misconceptions around what green chemistry was. Some people thought that it was somehow not-as-good chemistry. Now it’s been proven throughout the years that it’s actually an advantage. It can be an advantage for innovation, and it can be an advantage for job opportunities, because you bring a different skill set to the table.
What progress has Beyond Benign made toward its 25 by 25 goal?
Each year in the U.S., we graduate about 22,000 chemists. We wanted to put a stake in the ground for what we’re trying to achieve. The goal to have 25% of graduates versed in green chemistry came out of wanting to build a critical mass of institutions that are teaching green chemistry and preparing students with green chemistry skills to enter the workforce and create change.
We’re not there yet. We’re just over 10%. There’s a lot of work to do in that space. I’m not sure we’ll get there within the time frame that we’re hoping for, but I think it’s a goal that calls out this need. Chemistry as a profession is a small percentage of the general population, but it can have huge impacts. It’s central to so many of the products that we use on a daily basis. The potential impact that green chemistry training can have on the global workforce and the chemical enterprise is tremendous. I think it’s worth creating ambitious goals.
Why did Beyond Benign launch the Minority Serving Institution (MSI) Initiative?
The MSI Initiative is an intentional approach for reaching out to, engaging with, and elevating minority serving institutions in the green chemistry education community. We not only want to invite them into the community, but we want to elevate the diversity of voices within this community.
When we talk about supporting the community and supporting colleges and universities, we want to make sure that we are offering support and pathways and programming that meet the needs for the whole diverse set of institutions and people involved in academia. We know that there’s underrepresentation within the chemical sciences. We don’t want to be part of that problem. Instead, we want to help bring more institutions and people to the table.
What do the next 10 years of the GCC look like?
I hope we’ll have a good percentage of colleges and universities involved with the program. I want to continue to support change in chemistry education. We hope we can offer more mini grants to enable institutions to make these changes.
Through the launch of the Green Chemistry Teaching and Learning Community (GCTLC) online platform, I think we’re going to bring even more educators into the community. We’re going to see a lot of growth, not just driven by us but driven by the community. That’s very much where this needs to go.
I do feel like we’re at a tipping point at the moment. We’re definitely seeing some good growth, and I think we have good momentum.