Is company use of new technologies your next CSR challenge?

Last week it was announced that a scientist in the USA had created the first synthetic, self replicating organism – the first time humans have created a life-form from scratch.

The media couldn’t resist and dubbed him God 2.0.

Interesting science, but what’s that got to do with CSR?

The self-avowed goal of this particular project is to replace fossil fuels with man-made biological creations and while that outcome is a few years away yet, this is an important step on that path.

New sources of energy are the poster child of this technology, though other medical and even food applications are being talked about.

Some companies in the UK and others abroad are actively pursuing research in this area, particularly with synthetic biofuels. Could this be one of the sustainability answers we have been searching for?

It is one of the more interesting and controversial possibilities certainly, but as you might expect, there are significant social, ethical, environmental and governance challenges associated with creating and using new life-forms.

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

The term is used to describe the many ways that we can now work with the actual molecules and atoms that make up our world. It’s basically a way of making things.

Because materials created at the nanoscale sometimes behave differently than they do normally, there are new opportunities and may be new risks associated with their use.

(The nanoscale is basically between 1 and 100nanometers, or a millionth of a millimetre. A human hair is 80,000 nanometers long. I know, it’s mind boggling isn’t it!).

So for example sunscreens are see-through not white when the sunblock ingredient is used in nano form; nanoscale carbon can make things much stronger or lighter, useful for light frame bikes or tennis racquets; nano emulsions and other methods are used in many cosmetics and coatings of nanoscale materials are giving us anti-scratch films for specs, anti-cling paint for oil tankers and self-cleaning windows.

Many UK companies are either using or considering how the various nanotechnologies can enhance their existing lines or help them create new and innovative products.

There are a few hundred products at least on the market in the UK according to the voluntary Nano Consumer Products Inventory the US Woodrow Wilson Centre – with at least a thousand, and probably many more, across the world.

However, because of the different properties which are being exploited there may also be new risks and it is this area of safety for humans and the environment which is currently under most scrutiny from a CSR perspective.

So what are the expectations of companies in relation to their use of nano? A useful framework for this can be found in the Responsible Nano Code

There are seven principles of the Code, which focus attention on:

(a) Ensuring the benefit provided by the nano component is genuine and effective

(b) Ensuring the applications are safe for people and the environment

(c) Communicating up and down the supply chain to obtain the data to demonstrate this.

(d) Being transparent about the use of the material and the testing which has been done to assure its safety

All these areas are important, but the clincher for me is the one about transparency.

How are we to know if a product benefit is genuine, safety is assured and the supply chain is informed and participating if companies are not communicating with each other and with the rest of us – which pretty much they are not.

So despite business having earnestly vowed to ‘learn the lessons of GM’ most companies using nano in their products are keeping schtum for ‘fear of a backlash’.

Hello? Wasn’t the need for transparent and open communication about the use of such technologies one of the most important findings of the GM saga?

Surely we aren’t going to make the same mistake again?

This article was first published in Ethical Corporation

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