Green Chemistry

A Brief Historical Critique

by Marcin Krasnodębski (Author)
©2022 Monographs 300 Pages


In recent decades, green chemistry dominated the imagination of sustainability scholars all over the world and was embraced by leading global universities and companies. This new concept is supposed to address the environmental crisis by making chemistry safer and less polluting.
And yet, under this seemingly straightforward success story hides a tangled and ambiguous reality: alternative frameworks, shoddy greenness criteria, and power struggles.
This book retraces the history of the green chemistry concept and critically assesses its claims and dominant narratives about it. It is an indispensable guide for all those interested in the challenges of sustainability, whether they have background in chemistry or not. Its underlying question is: is green chemistry really that green?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • List of Tables
  • List of Figures
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Table of Contents
  • Funding Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • A few words on methodology
  • The input of the humanities and social sciences
  • Chapter 1: Standard narrative on the history of green chemistry
  • 1. Green chemistry: the story so far
  • 2. What does the standard narrative really tell us about green chemistry?
  • 2.1. Brown vs Green Chemistry
  • 2.2. Green chemistry versus ‘command and control’ approach
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 2: The formative 1990s
  • 1. Green chemistry outside the Anglosphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s
  • 2. Anastas’s green chemistry in the US before 1998
  • 2.1. Preliminary remarks
  • 2.2. Benign by Design (1994 book)
  • 2.3. Green Chemistry. Designing Chemistry for the Environment (1996 book)
  • 2.4. Laying down the foundations of green chemistry
  • 3. Non-Anastas American green chemistries
  • 3.1. Hancock’s environmental green chemistry
  • 3.2. Garrett’s toxicological green chemistry
  • 3.3. Concluding remarks
  • 4. Sheldon’s and Trost’s green chemistry metrics
  • 5. Clark’s Green Chemistry
  • 6. But what was practised as green chemistry in the 1990s?
  • 6.1. Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award
  • 6.2. First university courses in green chemistry
  • 6.3. Canonical green chemistry symposia (1994, 1996)
  • 6.4. Note on the American Chemical Society Symposia Series
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 3: 12 principles of green chemistry and their proliferation
  • 1. A short epistemological introduction
  • 2. Completing and reformulating the 12 principles of green chemistry
  • 3. Enthronement of green chemistry principles
  • 3.1. Creating the legend
  • 3.2. 12 principles in green chemistry education
  • 3.3. Green chemistry’s self-representation
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 4: What is green chemistry? (normative approach)
  • 1. Major controversies: chlorine sunset and fracking
  • 2. Core problem: ionic liquids
  • 3. Green chemistry metrics
  • Conclusions: Redrawing the boundaries
  • Chapter 5: What is green chemistry? (descriptive approach)
  • 1. Methodology
  • 2. Birth of the discipline (1996–2000)
  • 3. Explosion of interest (2001–2005)
  • 4. New publication venues (2006–2010)
  • 5. Rise of Asia (2011–2015)
  • 6. Solidifying change (2015–2020)
  • 7. Concluding remarks
  • 8. Side note on patents.
  • Chapter 6: Biomass and doubly green chemistry
  • 1. Prehistory of principle
  • 2. The French connection
  • 3. Biomass and renewability in the foundational texts of green chemistry (late 1990s–early 2000s)
  • 4. The growth of the place of biomass and renewability in the literature on green chemistry
  • Chapter 7: Not only green: sustainable chemistry and past environmentally-friendly chemistries
  • 1. Forgotten alternatives
  • 1.1. Solid state-chemistry with green ambitions: French chimie douce
  • 1.2. Politically incorrect green chemistry: German sanfte Chemie
  • 1.3. Alternative pollution prevention frameworks in Europe
  • 2. Escaping the green: sustainable chemistry
  • 2.1. Industrial ecology (and the life-cycle assessment)
  • 2.2. 1998 OECD Sustainable Chemistry workshop
  • 2.3. German connection
  • 2.4. American trajectory: sustainable chemistry is green chemistry
  • 2.5. Going beyond green: early years of sustainable chemistry (1998–2011)
  • 2.6. Defining sustainable chemistry (2011–2017)
  • 2.7. Formalising sustainable chemistry as a discipline on its own (2015–2021)
  • Conclusions
  • Chapter 8: New conceptual frontiers for chemistry and environment
  • 1. New contenders to overthrow green chemistry
  • 1.1. Conservative evolution and the risk of politicization of green chemistry debates
  • 1.2. One-world chemistry
  • 1.3. Circular chemistry
  • 1.4. Concluding remarks on new alternative frameworks
  • 2. New ideas for green chemistry
  • 2.1. Systems thinking and green and sustainable chemistry
  • 2.2. Green chemistry and social justice
  • Conclusions
  • General conclusions: green chemistry as history of scientific ideas
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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Funding Acknowledgements

The writing of this book was funded as a part of the project “Green Chemistry avant la lettre: historical and epistemic underpinnings of sustainable practices in chemistry and chemical industry” carried out as the Sonata 16 grant No. 2019/35/D/HS3/00614 of the Polish National Science Centre.

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Green chemistry is one of the most successful sustainability-related concepts of the last few decades. New introductory textbooks devoted to this pioneering field appear on a regular basis. Academic courses or even fully fledged degrees in green chemistry are designed in an increasing number of leading global universities. The funding agencies all around the world pour hundreds of millions of dollars into green chemistry research, not to mention private R&D investments of major companies trying to ‘green’ their practices in the eyes of the public. Green chemistry is at the heart of long-term development plans of entire nations and international organizations such as the OECD and the United Nations. The sheer number of articles tagged with the “green chemistry” keyword is overwhelming and grows exponentially every few years. The popularity of the concept in the world of science is unquestionable.

So what exactly is green chemistry? Someone not familiar with the concept may feel that green chemistry is undoubtedly something good. The colour green is often associated with nature or the environment; green research or policy projects are the ones that revolve around health, well-being, sustainability, and positive emotions. Green chemistry is therefore certainly a ‘feeling-good chemistry’ and an ordinary citizen may be perfectly content with the fact that this line of research is gaining so much attention recently. If someone tried, however, to go one step further and dig deeper to find a precise definition of green chemistry, the inquirer would encounter a mass of confusing literature with definitions as numerous as they are vague. Chemists agree neither on what type of ‘object’ green chemistry is (discipline, subdiscipline, paradigm, method?) nor what it deals with (pollution prevention, toxicity, renewable materials, some of them, all of them?), not to mention that its relationship to other disciplines or ways of thinking (sustainability, sustainable chemistry, industrial ecology, environmental chemistry, circular economy, etc.) is far from well-established.

Green chemistry is an imbroglio of theories, methods, institutions, ideas, and especially narratives, whose meaning evolve dynamically. Green chemistry in 1996 (the year of the first Green Chemistry Challenge Award attributed by the US government) is certainly different than the one in the early 2020s, not just because of the accumulation of novel empirical results, but because the frontiers of the concept shifted. What is particularly striking about this evolution is the epistemological self-awareness of green chemistry practitioners; no other ‘discipline’ generated so much self-reflection on its own foundations. Indeed, chemists ←21 | 22→working in the field perfectly see difficulties with its fuzzy boundaries. Every year a cohort of new theoretical articles, introductory chapters, press publications, and official manifestos attempt to recast the history and the underpinnings of the green chemistry project in order to define it in a new way. Descriptive and normative aspects are never fully dissociated in these publications. Many authors write the history of green chemistry in a given way to justify their own vision of the of the field.

This book is not about the history of a tremendous amount of innovations and discoveries that have been often labelled as green chemistry over the last quarter-century. It does not dwell into the intricacies of research on ionic liquids, novel bio-catalysts, solventless processes, or more efficient biorefineries. Such a work on the process of ‘greening’ chemistry should be conducted as a collaborative project between chemists, engineers, industry representatives, and historians, and would certainly span many volumes. It would require evaluating not only scientific contributions but also their implementation by the private sector, as well as their greenness claims.

The purpose of this book is different. Its goal is to study the language used by chemists and regulators. It examines the underlying assumptions behind the scientific practice rather than scientific findings themselves. It attempts to investigate the meaning of green chemistry and sister concepts and to understand to what kind of register these frameworks belong. Is it a language of science, of ethics, or of politics? Throughout this book, I unravel the complexity of the problem and present major developments of the green chemistry narrative. This book can therefore be a helpful guide to all those who want to position themselves towards green chemistry, but who are lost in all the theoretical, and often contradictory, literature produced about it. While it can certainly help newcomers to the field, it is meant to be understandable by all those interested in the politics of sustainability and in the narratives surrounding the ongoing environmental crisis, whether they have any background in chemistry or not.

All of this may sound convoluted at first, but I systematically elucidate all the problems raised above. As such, one of the main arguments of the book is that green chemistry is a distinctively twenty-first-century type of phenomenon; not merely a fad or a temporary fashion, but a certain type of scientific jargon that helps to think about problems that are simultaneously scientific and social. The ultimate goal of this work is to propose a new way of deciphering the confusing mass of scholarship produced on theoretical underpinnings of green chemistry as well as to deconstruct some of the most widespread myths about this field of knowledge.

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A few words on methodology

From the methodological standpoint, the book makes use of what sociologists call the “discourse analysis,” an intuitive methodology for reading texts of culture insisting on the fact that no hierarchy of sources is fixed once and for all and that every study object needs an individual appreciation to identify relevant discourse-formative elements.1 In this book, I mostly study and analyse articles, editorials, and book chapters explicitly defining (or trying to define) green chemistry and similar concepts. As previously mentioned, these publications are very numerous. A search in the Scopus database returns around 30 000 articles with the term green chemistry in their abstracts, titles, and keywords, or in the name of the journals that published them. Even if only 1% of them tried to define green chemistry in some way, the number still amounts to 300 papers. And it does not include many important books and early articles that have not been indexed in Scopus, it does not include non-English speaking publications, and it does not include definitions from various official websites. Since the sheer number of these documents is impressive, I had to identify the protagonists of the green chemistry history, as well as the key fora where the debate takes place, in order to select the texts I focus on. Not every definition is equally influential. And yet the definitions coming from less prominent and younger scholars can also be precious in the sense that they provide us hints on how the notion was being rebuilt and appropriated over the years and may indicate where it is going in the future. There is no straightforward way to introduce all these texts at the same time and I justify the choice of this or that document on an individual basis. In a certain way, this book constitutes an informed commentary to these various scholarly works.

Two objections against this approach may be raised at this point. Firstly, it may appear somewhat artificial to separate short bits and pieces defining green chemistry from the main body of different scientific texts that often advance informed arguments on much more specialized topics. However, the purpose of my study is not to paint a broad picture of every single subject that has been labelled as green chemistry and even less to engage in much more complex scientific debates. At the heart of the endeavour is the term green chemistry itself in its multiple declinations over the years.

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The second objection is that discourse analysis is not a proper research methodology due to its inherent subjectivity. It is true that with hundreds of articles trying to define green chemistry, some intuitive selection of the books and papers to focus on had to be done and that these choices may be deemed controversial. However, these difficulties do not invalidate the project’s ambition. If they did, there would be no way to study narratives in the history of science in the twenty-first century at all, simply because of the number of possible sources. The historian’s agency proves itself crucial in such a task and should not be hidden. The book explicitly argues for a certain reading of green chemistry and opens itself for further criticism. If the readers consider my interpretation erroneous, the future dialogue over its content can be revealing for understanding the complexity of the contemporary scientific jargon. Or to put it more modestly: I am happy to be proven wrong and have my findings subjected to critique, but the discussion needs to start somewhere, and this is why this book was needed.

Is there any way to learn what green chemistry consists of other than reading explicit definitions? Perhaps the most intuitive way of discovering what hides behind the term is to study through bibliometric lenses the content of journals, reviews, and book series referring to the framework. While in the early 2000s there was only one major review, Green Chemistry, which set the tone, twenty years later there is more than half a dozen journals devoted to green chemistry-related subjects, not to mention many other general chemistry reviews publishing articles tagged with the “green chemistry” keyword. Scientometric tools in modern databases such as Scopus or Web of Science enable an extensive analysis of long-term tendencies in such publications. However, scientometric analyses do not overcome the major definition-related problem. Do all articles tagged or described as green chemistry genuinely enter into the perimeter of the field? One could answer that yes, that the definition of green chemistry is what people publish as green chemistry, no matter what is considered the ‘canonical’ green chemistry in manuals and foundational texts. Leaving aside the question whether such an approach is appropriate for analysing value-laden concepts such as green chemistry, it certainly does not solve the problem of going in the opposite direction. What about the studies that do satisfy the definition of green chemistry but are not labelled as such, or use a competing terminology such as sustainable chemistry? I clarify these challenges throughout the text, insisting on numerous tensions surrounding the dominant vocabulary. In a way, this book constitutes a guide to debates on the frontiers of green chemistry.

If someone tried to position this work among the already established methodological frameworks of history of science, it stems, to an extent, from the ←24 | 25→philosophy of the French historian Jacques Roger.2 Roger brought into the history of science the methods of the French Annales School well-known for its work on the history of mentalities: the overarching representations of the world in which people live and with which they interact. The history of green chemistry is above all the history of the mentalities of scientists interacting with their objects of study, contextualizing them, and explaining their research choices. I could simply call it a paradigm, but the use of the word ‘paradigm’ in a history of science book may suggest that the author means the term in a sense given to it by Thomas Kuhn, which is not the case.3 Green chemistry is not (or at least not yet and not only) a Kuhnian paradigm. The concept of scientific mentalities is more helpful, but again, these methodological debates should not detract us from the core narrative of the book and are not needed to understand its message.

At the same time, this book can also be seen through the lenses of the recent literature on the history of various sub-disciplines of chemistry; a topic that has been recently gaining more and more attention.4 However, above all, it is simply a history book exploring the complex knowledge panorama of the twenty-first century, which is characterized not only by transdisciplinarity, but also by constant transgressions between the scientific and the social. The choice of a more specific reading framework would narrow down the definition of green chemistry, while the entire purpose of the book is, precisely, to indicate the plurality of meanings and the internal contradictions and paradoxes in the way the term is used.

The input of the humanities and social sciences

While the problems with the green terminology in chemistry have been thoroughly explored by scientists themselves, green chemistry also attracted a certain ←25 | 26→interest of scholars in STS (science and technology studies or social studies of science), historians, economists, and philosophers of science. They all tried to take a step back in order to delineate the object of their studies from a broader perspective and to contribute to the general debate on what green chemistry is and should be, often highlighting these elements which chemists tended to gloss over and ignore. Interestingly, while some of these social scientists present a rather optimistic and enthusiastic view of the field, calling it occasionally outright revolutionary,5 others are more reserved6 and even sceptical about the concept of green chemistry.7 A quick observation suggests that enthusiasts were more interested in the normative power of green chemistry, whereas sceptics were those who conducted more empirically-oriented studies on the concept.

One of these studies deserves an explicit mention. In 2006, an STS scholar with a background in chemistry, Jody Roberts, wrote a Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Creating Green Chemistry: Discursive Strategies of a Scientific Movement.”8 Roberts explores the origins of the concept in the US and the way it was formulated, understood, and disseminated. He relies on an extensive bibliography, interviews, as well as on his own experiences from a green chemistry summer school in 2004. Interesting, rich, but also critical in a stimulating way, Roberts’s dissertation constitutes one of the most insightful works on the history and epistemology of green chemistry up to date. In my work, I agree with his dissertation’s key assertions, I build upon them, and often reuse Roberts’s arguments.

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However, my book also differs from Roberts’s dissertation in three important respects: methodology, chronology, and geographical scope. First of all, Roberts focused on green chemistry as a ‘movement’ from a sociological perspective. My approach is more eclectic; broader and narrower at the same time. It is narrower because I focus more on the language used by relevant stakeholders without entering into details of social and institutional networks that shaped green chemistry, but it is also broader since I consider the social movement approach to be just one of many ways to think about the field (Table 1).

Table 1: Some ways to think about green chemistry expressed in the literature

What is green chemistry?

What does it deal with?

- social movement

- scientific discipline (mature or statu nascendi)

- new paradigm in chemistry

- synonym for sustainable chemistry

- methodology or tool in service of sustainability

- buzzword hiding greenwashing


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
Sustainability Environmental crisis Science and Society Ethics in Science History of Science Sociology of Science
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 300 pp., 31 fig. b/w, 34 tables.

Biographical notes

Marcin Krasnodębski (Author)

Marcin Krasnodębski, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Institute for the History of Science of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is the author of an award-winning dissertation on the history of resin chemistry in France. His research focuses on environmental history and the history of science.


Title: Green Chemistry