Leading by Example, Challenging the Sustainability Mindset
Sustainability has become a key issue for science as the world works to limit global warming to 1.5 °C in response to The Paris Agreement, a treaty created in 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 21. As a significant proportion of the world’s carbon footprint comes from the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, improvements in this field can considerably impact efforts to reduce global carbon emissions.
Driving forward a culture of sustainability in science is the non-profit organization, My Green Lab, with the My Green Lab Certification considered the gold standard for laboratory sustainability practices. The organization helps scientists identify ways to reduce waste and energy use through a number of environmentally focused programs and partnerships. Agilent Technologies recently became the first “Angel”-level sponsor of My Green Lab, as part of the company’s ongoing commitment to supporting customers to achieve their lab sustainability goals.
We spoke to Darlene Solomon, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Agilent, to learn more about improving sustainability in science and Agilent’s commitment to My Green Lab and other sustainability initiatives.
Anna MacDonald (AM): How have general attitudes toward lab sustainability changed in recent years? What areas have customers sought more sustainable options for in particular?
Darlene Solomon (DS): Labs have always been concerned about decreasing their environmental footprint (as seen in Frost and Sullivan data from 2017). Over the last few years, many have taken additional steps to put intentional programs in place, driven by their own goals or their company’s goals. In a more recent survey, customers indicate they are looking for greener alternatives, whether that be instruments, consumables, packaging or how they run their physical lab operations. They are focusing on reducing water, waste, electricity etc. Many labs are implementing eco-friendly initiatives and focusing on creating a sustainable working environment.
Over the last few years labs have established sustainability departments or have nominated a key person to coordinate their efforts, as a relatively new construct. Their purpose is to set the goals as well as make recommendations regarding purchasing. The lab manager remains an important voice and implementer, as a team approach and alignment to company culture is necessary.
Customers also rely on vendors to support them to meet their goals. Our customers expect to see vendors’ net zero commitments and understand their vision, and want concrete proof that vendors are working towards these goals. They also demand energy-efficient instrumentation, using recyclable and sustainable materials without compromising on quality and deliver with a sustainable supply chain. Importantly, customers want detailed information, preferably that has been externally validated, about the environmental attributes of a given product throughout the entire product life cycle, including recycling or disposal; this is why ACT labels are becoming so important in our industry – ACT stands for Accountability, Consistency and Transparency and can be regarded as an eco-nutrient label for lab products, giving a holistic view on their sustainability. Information and training in sustainability are also high on the customers’ wish list as everyone is still learning and discovering by sharing best practice.
AM: What do you view as the biggest challenges to improving sustainability in science and moving towards a zero-carbon future?
DS: Education and alignment that enables a focused and organized approach. Also, a way to monitor and report on their goals so labs can track progress or pivot and refocus in a certain area if necessary.
There seems to be a general presumption that sustainability is expensive, especially for labs that are finding sustainability challenging, as they cite lack of funding and budget constraints as the greatest barrier to make sustainability a priority. However newer more sustainable instruments can more than offset the initial investment differential. Often, just by being able to optimize lab workflows, labs can make important inroads to meet their sustainability goals.
Another general presumption is that opting for sustainability requires a compromise in performance; this is not the case – rather sustainability is a new driver for innovation. Our product and solution development teams are seeking new approaches that optimize performance, cost and sustainability without jeopardizing any one of these attributes.
AM: Can you describe some of the ways Agilent has worked to create sustainable labs and support customers to achieve their sustainability goals?
DS: We know that companies like Agilent play a crucial role in terms of sustainability and reducing the environmental footprint for a lab specifically at a product/instrument level by ensuring it is energy efficient. Other key factors include water consumption, the use of recyclable and sustainable material, sustainable product design, sustainable packaging, reduction of carbon emissions and having a green supply chain.
We have many examples of where we have improved the sustainability of our products and services. One recent example is the launch of 5977C GC/MSD: The latest in single quadrupole GC/MS instruments, along with the new HydroInert source to explore hydrogen as a viable alternative to helium as a carrier gas for GC/MS. We are reducing hazardous waste in for example our oil free IDP dry scroll pumps and InfinityLab Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC) solutions. We are also supporting recycling and green purchasing through smarter packaging, instrument trade-in programs and our Agilent Certified Pre-Owned business, where we take instruments back and refurbish like new with warranty.
But it’s not just about the hardware and consumables – software and services can reduce our carbon footprint through digital transformation, and further support our customers in achieving their lab operations productivity and sustainability goals. For example, CrossLab Virtual Assist enables us to provide customer service and support via augmented reality – fast time to repair while also reducing carbon footprint. CrossLab Asset Monitoring is software that enables customers to see their asset utilization and energy use, so they can better manage their labs.
Working with not-for-profits is an important part of our learning and adopting best practice. One example is how we are looking at our packaging to optimize design, source more sustainably and support recycling. To this end, Agilent has partnered with GreenBlue to implement their How2Recycle program, which uses recognizable logos to indicate which materials are recyclable which in turn, helps our customers recycle packaging.
Now in our fourth year, we continue our high-level sponsorship and partnership with My Green Lab to help us learn more and be able to continue to benefit from an organization that has the same goals as us, to help customers reduce their environmental footprint. We see the benefit of investing in surveys to understand the laboratory landscape, and how customers are thinking and acting in terms of making sustainable choices. This drives our intentions.
AM: Can you tell us more about Agilent’s partnership with My Green Lab and its recent “Angel” level sponsorship?
DS: Agilent was My Green Lab’s first “Transformative”-level sponsor and as such prides itself as being an important partner, so we didn’t hesitate to become an “Angel”-level sponsor when My Green Lab announced this possibility for 2023. For Agilent, My Green Lab represents the ideal partner as they serve the same markets as we do, interact with many scientists in their organization, and speak the same language as our customers. Besides the day-to-day projects that we are working on, such as securing ACT labels for Agilent products, we are also trusted advisors who are included in conversations about how to progress and accelerate greener labs in the future, influence future programs and reiterations of existing programs. We will continue to ensure that our own labs are greener and have recently had several of our customer demonstration labs, considered Centers of Excellence, certified.
Agilent was the first company to sponsor the My Green Lab certiﬁcation program, which was named as a crucial indicator of progress for the UNFCCC High-Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs campaign; we are committed to continue to support this important initiative.
AM: Has it been easier to improve sustainability in certain areas more than others? Can you share your thoughts on which areas still have room for sustainability improvements and what can be done to address this?
DS: We are on a constant and intentional journey to improve sustainability in all areas of our business, throughout our internal operations as well as in our products, solutions and services. This wholistic approach will be crucial for Agilent to reach our net zero commitments and will also give us the ability and focus to continually support the green goals of our customers. We believe that changes towards more sustainability is probably easier the earlier in the value chain, i.e., easier in R&D environments than further down-stream in production and QA/QC areas.
AM: Do you have any advice or recommendations for implementing a successful sustainability strategy?
DS: A commitment from the top and active engagement throughout the company is imperative to success – supported by training, education and sharing stories of how we are benefitting customers with our improvements to continue motivating the organization.
Darlene Solomon was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.