Some green chemistry products are trying to grab a market share from the big brand names by offering something beyond environmentally friendly ingredients. Method's kitchen and bathroom cleaners, which cost roughly 10% more than traditional ones, are scented with lavender and other essential oils and packaged in hip, colorful containers.
Sales at Method, one of the fastest-growing private companies in 2006, have reached $77 million a year. Avalon Organics' market also soared; it was sold last year for $120 million to Hain Celestial, known for producing organic foods.
"We've built in green chemistry from the very beginning. It was at the core of our business philosophy," Lowry said. "The companies that don't do it will become the dinosaurs."
Johns manville co. may have learned the hard way. It was bankrupted by one of the deadliest and most expensive toxic episodes in history: asbestos.
The building materials company, now under new ownership, wanted its new fiberglass insulation to be as environmentally safe as possible. So it turned to Rohm and Haas, a $9-billion-a-year chemical company that invented a new glue with no formaldehyde, a carcinogen that has been the binder of choice for fiberglass.
Johns Manville is now the only manufacturer offering a complete line of formaldehyde-free insulation, and because its factories emit no formaldehyde, it is the only one exempt from federal hazardous air pollutant standards.
The new adhesives cost more per pound. But Mike Lawrence, Johns Manville's vice president and general manager for insulations systems, said the manufacturing process was tightened to bring costs in line. He said their products are priced in the same range as competitors' and meet the same industry standards.
"It was the right thing to do for our employees, our customers, for our shareholders," Lawrence said.
Peggy Jenkins, the California Air Resources Board's indoor air quality specialist, advises consumers to buy formaldehyde-free insulation to reduce their exposure to the carcinogen.
Still, such products comprise only about 20% of the insulation market. Owens Corning, the largest manufacturer, uses formaldehyde, saying there is no evidence that trace amounts pose a health threat.
Colin Gouveia, a global marketing director at Rohm and Haas, said most consumers are unaware that building materials contain formaldehyde.
"Sometimes green products," he said, "need a little kick from a regulation to overcome the barrier to change."
That is what stoked the market for another green chemistry product, an industrial paint. In 2006, the South Coast Air Quality Management District set limits on smog-causing petroleum-based solvents in industrial coatings used in the Los Angeles region.
Caltrans had to find new paint for the state's 850 steel bridges that was not only low-polluting, but could withstand the elements. Rohm and Haas' biggest challenge was the perception that a water-based paint couldn't be durable.
Barry Marcks, Caltrans' associate chemical testing engineer, said the new low-emission paint has been used for two years on the state's bridges -- 86 million square feet of surface area. It's as rust-resistant as the old paints, and has an added benefit: It retains its glossy colors better, he said.
The cost per gallon is in the same range, but the state saves on disposal and cleanup. Caltrans workers like it too.
"Now the workers don't have to be around all those high-solvent-borne paints. The waterborne ones are a lot less toxic," Marcks said.