In May, with very little fanfare, Walmart introduced an extraordinary new tool known as GreenWERCS.
GreenWERCS assesses the composition of chemical intensive products -- which is just about any non-food item on a Walmart shelf that you can pour, squeeze, dab or otherwise apply to your body or use in or around your home or car. GreenWERCS analyzes the composition of individual products from ingredient data entered by manufacturers, examining its potential impact on human health and the environment.
GreenWERCS uses a pre-identified scoring and weighting algorithm to provide information on the chemical ingredients of the products and whether they include:
- Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs);
- Carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants (CMRs); and
- Potential hazardous waste.
The presence of probable endocrine disruptors is also noted, while the presence of nanomaterials will be addressed in GreenWERCS 2.0. Overall, the intent of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other proponents of this tool is to drive the market toward greener chemistry, where chemical ingredients in products receiving a poor GreenWERCS score are replaced with substitutes that are proven preferable.
In full disclosure, I'm not an unbiased observer -- I co-chaired the Walmart Chemical Intensive Products Sustainable Value Network workgroup of more than two dozen industry, government and NGO representatives that spent more than 18 months developing the scoring and weighting metrics behind GreenWERCS.
The workgroup debated criteria, wrestled with issues of hazard versus risk and reviewed and agreed upon 30 authoritative lists from the U.S. and Europe covering some 3,500 substances of concern against which products are being reviewed. One extraordinary aspect of the tool was the level of agreement among the workgroup participants as to what should be included in the tool -- and the fact that everyone supported this new level of disclosure.
What's truly encouraging is the level of transparency on these scored chemical characteristics that the GreenWERCS tool provides to retailers and suppliers.
The more insight a retailer has into a product's composition, the better the conversation can be between retailer and suppliers as to improved chemical alternatives. The key question retailers can ask of suppliers is: Can this product do its job effectively and affordably without use of these listed chemicals? Ask that question often enough and new innovative solutions hopefully will follow. While the customer is unlikely to ever see the GreenWERCS analysis, over time it should result in better consumer products from which to select.
Moving forward, EDF will advocate for the Walmart Chemical Intensive Products Sustainable Value Network to encourage reformulation with chemicals certified as green through U.S. EPA's Design for Environment (DfE) program, develop a list of emerging chemicals of concern to watch for and devise strategies to encourage ingredient disclosure.
GreenWERCS represents the second phase of Walmart's new approach to assessing chemicals. In the initial phase, companies selling chemical intensive products to Walmart had to provide 100 percent full disclosure of all intentionally added chemical ingredients to the Worldwide Environmental Regulatory Compliance Solutions (WERCS), a third party service provider.
The WERCSmart Chemical Assessment Review Process was instituted to provide information to Walmart regarding products that it sells that may be regulated under federal and state environmental laws and to ensure that chemical intensive products were handled and disposed of appropriately.
GreenWERCS allows the same product data to be screened for potential adverse human and environmental health risks associated with the chemical ingredients. Almost overnight, enhanced transparency into components of concern can be available to Walmart on a significant number of products.
Although developed through Walmart, the GreenWERCS tool is available for other retailers to use. Since few suppliers sell their products only to Walmart, the GreenWERCS database can provide immediate insight into consumer product composition on almost any retailer's shelves. And every time a company changes the product composition for the better, everyone benefits.
Michelle Mauthe Harvey co-leads Environmental Defense Fund's on-site partnership with Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, advancing sustainable business practices throughout their operations and supply chain.
This piece is cross-posted on at EDF's Innovation Exchange.
Image by weatherbox.