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Sustainable Science: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Impact

As the environmental impact of laboratories becomes clearer, scientists are increasingly asking, why? 

James Connelly

James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, is an internationally recognized expert on corporate sustainability and green labs. A Fulbright Fellow, James is a former GreenBiz 30 Under 30 Sustainable...

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According to a recent study released at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, the carbon impact of publicly traded companies from the global biotech and pharma industries has greater carbon emissions than the forestry and paper and semiconductor industries, equal to nearly half the annual emissions of the United Kingdom. 

When you factor in academic labs, government labs, and private companies and research institutions, the number is much higher. After data centers, labs are widely recognized as consuming more energy per square foot than any other sector. 

As the environmental impact of laboratories becomes clearer, scientists are increasingly asking, why?

Why do we produce so much plastic waste; enough each year to cover an area 23 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep? Why do we leave fume hoods open and equipment on 24/7, actions that contribute to the consumption of more energy per square foot than almost any other sector? By asking questions and interrogating our behaviors in the lab, a powerful new perspective emerges.

By asking why, researchers open themselves up to new ideas on how to accomplish the same level of quality in their work, but with a much lower environmental impact. Proven, actionable frameworks give individuals and organizations the tools to achieve their sustainability goals. Green lab certifications support this process by ensuring consistent, measurable impact through a transparent third-party verification process. 

Empowering individuals to drive change

Sustainability in a laboratory cannot be done effectively through a checklist or prescriptive standard because every lab and research effort are different. Further, it is critical that sustainability interventions do not interfere with the underlying research. If a scientist cannot develop new treatments and breakthroughs with the same level of quality and efficiency, then the work isn’t truly sustainable. Therefore, the most important first step in developing a green lab is educating and empowering individuals working in the lab to understand their impact and their potential for change. After researchers become aware of their impact, they should be provided flexible pathways for how they can implement appropriate sustainable solutions.

This way, individual scientists become the catalyst. By empowering scientists and creating a mindset and behavior change, the fabric of how the lab functions is fundamentally improved and a lasting culture of sustainability is built. 

While sustainability in the lab starts with individuals, to achieve a broad-based impact, individuals need to join in a community and inspire others to follow their lead. Through leading by example, individuals ignite a virtuous cycle that expands throughout their lab, to other labs, and eventually the entire organization. As more and more organizations take a leadership role, a global green labs community begins to shift the entire industry.

The lab manager as an agent of change

My Green Lab’s Theory of Change first brings awareness to the environmental impact of science, while demonstrating that there is a more sustainable way to conduct research. MGL motivates the community, from individual scientists at the bench to global institutions and companies, to take action through their programs that encourage continuous improvement, while elevating and rewarding leadership determined through a rigorous independent verification process to inspire the rest of the industry to change. Through this process, MGL is building a culture of sustainability in science that is fundamentally and permanently transforming the science community into a global leader on sustainability.
Lab Manager

Lab managers have always been on the vanguard of the green labs movement. The first green labs programs were developed by a courageous group of scientists and lab managers who noticed that things could be done differently. Today, lab managers remain the champions of creating a culture of sustainability within the lab. As a tool to engage scientists in an organization’s broader sustainability mission, green labs offer an opportunity to align companies’ goals with the work of researchers at the bench. Lab managers play a crucial role in educating and operationalizing organizational objectives. Managers have the unique position to listen to and engage scientists while figuring out how sustainability programs fit within business objectives.

For the lab manager looking to implement green lab programs, building awareness is the first step to engaging their lab and ensuring action. Educational programs present lab managers with an opportunity to grow their knowledge and demonstrate their expertise in lab sustainability. By educating lab staff on the impact of their daily actions and providing new ways of doing research, lab managers can help inspire a positive culture of change. Participation in green lab programs provide the rewards and incentives that ignite a positive feedback loop that inspires organization-wide transformation. 

Systemic changes

 While it is important to drive change at the lab bench, it is important to also look beyond the four walls of a lab to achieve a broad, industry-wide transformation. We have to advocate for systemic change from the supply chain, to how research is funded, and how companies are evaluated by their investors.

Green labs also require green lab products; therefore, a transformation of the supply chain is necessary to make smarter, more sustainable purchases. The My Green Lab ACT label utilizes a third-party verification process that holds manufacturers accountable and empowers lab managers and researchers to make more sustainable choices. Currently, more than 1,400 products from 14 prominent manufacturers of lab supplies have earned the ACT label. While this is a great start, we need many more ACT-labeled products to ensure sustainable lab purchasing.

“For the lab manager looking to implement green lab programs, building awareness is the first step to engaging their lab and ensuring action.”

At the highest level, research and grant funding needs to prioritize green labs. Currently, it makes no difference if your lab is green or not when applying for grant funding, even though a lab’s dollars are spent much more efficiently with sustainability programs in place. Through the BETR Grants program, My Green Lab is working in partnership with the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) to ensure sustainability is a key factor in research grant making. If prioritized at a policy level, green labs in academic research will quickly become the norm, not the exception. 

In the lead up to COP26, My Green Lab’s Certification was named a key indicator of progress for the Race to Zero campaign. The UNFCCC set a goal that 95 percent of biotech and pharma companies achieve the certification at the highest level by 2030, recognizing that green labs are a critical leverage point for driving industry-wide transformation. Green labs are now on the global climate change agenda, but green lab programs must be scaled up dramatically for the industry to be part of the climate solution.  

Turning commitments into actions

 To meet the Race to Zero goal and commit to net-zero by 2050 or sooner, organizations need to act now by turning commitments into action through a culture of sustainability. Bold organizational environmental claims in biotech and pharma must be backed up by concrete action in the lab to be credible to the market. While change starts with individuals, deeper broad-based, industry-wide transformation requires policy shifts that incentivize labs to adopt sustainability. 

The scientific industry can and should be leading the world on climate change. Out of any industry, ours has the resources and the culture of innovation to meet the climate challenge head on and inspire the rest of the world to follow in our footsteps. From lab managers, to researchers, funding bodies, manufacturers, and everyone in between, we all have a critical role to play in transforming the industry into a global leader on sustainability. 

James Connelly

James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, is an internationally recognized expert on corporate sustainability and green labs. A Fulbright Fellow, James is a former GreenBiz 30 Under 30 Sustainable Business Leader and a recipient of the Net Zero Energy Trailblazer Award.


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Lab Manager