How Companies Are Committing to Reduce Toxic Footprints

How Companies Are Committing to Reduce Toxic Footprints

Companies need to move towards using greener chemicals because the principal drivers demanding such change -- science, regulation, and B2B environmentally preferable purchasing programs -- are surging and will intensify.

Product toxicity reduction should be a core element of business strategy because it can reduce reputational and litigation liabilities, help companies avoid "toxic lockout" of their products from the marketplace, and drive innovation.

It can drive sales in the marketplace for environmentally preferable products, lower overhead costs when products subject to government hazardous waste laws are eliminated, and contribute to enhanced employee safety and productivity. Toxicity reduction and elimination can also yield other forms of cost savings, generally determined on a case by case basis.

In the course of this three-part series, we aim to help you figure out how to reduce your company's toxic footprint by reducing and eliminating the "worst of the worst" toxic chemicals and promoting use of "best of the best" green ones.

Part one is focused on corporate commitment; part two explores gathering and measuring data on toxics use, and part three looks at how companies disclose their toxics footprint and engage in shaping public policy on the issue. For background and details about the benchmark referred to throughout this series, please read "An Updated Benchmark for Corporate Green Chemistry Practices."

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The principles of "green chemistry" should inform and drive substitution programs. As summarized by Clean Production Action: "The goal of green chemistry is to create better, safer chemicals while choosing the safest, most efficient ways to synthesize them and to reduce wastes." The set of twelve principles includes such ideas as:

• preventing waste is better than cleaning it up afterwards;
• design chemicals explicitly to minimize toxicity to human health and the environment;
• minimize energy use
• use renewable rather than depleting feedstocks
• use safer solvents and minimize the potential for accidents
• design chemicals to degrade after use.

SC Johnson [PDF] stands out for having made its Greenlist process of toxicity reduction a core part of its corporate strategy. While this reflects the strong social ethic of the Johnson family, significant commitments to toxicity reduction have also been made by publicly owned companies.

For example, Nike has been working on toxicity reduction since the 1990s and in 2004 declared a corporate-wide goal of "proactively targeting, removing, or replacing chemicals that, while not legislated as illegal, fit the scientific definition of toxic." Nike's "Considered Chemistry" program of shifting to less toxic materials is profiled here.

Kaiser Permanente's "Comprehensive Chemicals Policy" [.doc link] adopts a precautionary approach to chemicals -- recognizing that action should be taken even in the face of scientific uncertainty -- and lays out the corporate practices that flow from that, including identifying high priority chemicals for action, working through its procurement process to secure safer alternatives, and developing goals and metrics to measure progress and mechanisms for sharing successes and lessons with the public.

Kaiser-Permanente aired some of these experiences and lessons in February 2009 testimony [PDF] before a congressional committee examining federal regulation of toxic chemicals.

More commonly, however, companies' safer substitution commitments are not presented in stand-alone statements, but are captured in the tools companies adopt that have explicit substitution elements.

For example, Steelcase [PDF] has been pursuing "cradle to cradle" certification for its product portfolio for many years. "Cradle to cradle" incorporates toxicity reduction criteria, moving products towards increased use of safer chemicals and away from hazardous ones and designing products that can be reclaimed and reused.

Steelcase competitor Herman Miller likewise has been deploying "cradle to cradle" design principles in its "design for environment" (DfE) protocol, described in detail on the MBDC website. The company set a challenge goal of deriving 50 percent of its 2010 sales from products that satisfied its DfE protocol, including no use of highly hazardous chemicals and no use of PVC.

Public commitments to chemical phase outs by specific deadlines represent a significant challenge. Quantitative corporate commitments to such goals as emission reductions, waste reductions, and increased use of recycled materials by specific dates seem comparatively easier and are more common.

Companies may be reluctant to make such chemical commitments for several reasons:

• uncertainty about the performance, availability, scalability, cost, and hazard profile of alternative materials;
• reluctance to reveal corporate strategy to competitors;
• lack of knowledge about the chemicals in their supply chain and their suppliers' reluctance to disclose them;
• absence of regulatory drivers; and
• insufficient customer demand

Furthermore, companies may open themselves up to criticism if they establish a goal and then fail to meet it. Some corporate staff ruefully characterize this risk-taking vulnerability as "No good deed goes unpunished." This risk was recently illustrated by Greenpeace hanging a banner on a Hewlett-Packard office building because of H-P's retraction of deadline commitments it had made for phasing out certain toxic chemicals.

Companies may also be reluctant to make such commitments because of their corporate cultures. They may have a strong tradition of quietly taking actions without much publicity, preferring to be judged by their deeds rather than their words. Or they may have a culture of secrecy. But undue secretiveness can cut against a company in the court of public opinion, as indicated by Apple's encounter a few years ago with Greenpeace.
Apple is well-known for its tight-lipped culture, but this silence made it seem a laggard when other electronics companies, like H-P and Dell, were making public commitments to toxic phase outs. A concerted effort by Greenpeace to move Apple ultimately led Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs to release a statement in May 2007 captioned "A Greener Apple."

The statement noted that Apple does not generally trumpet its future plans, but this had left both employees and outsiders in the dark about Apple's desires and plans to become greener. Jobs commented "Our stakeholders deserve and expect more from us, and they're right to do so. They want us to be a leader in this area…so today we're changing our [disclosure] policy."

Apple had already told its suppliers in 2006 of its goal to eliminate all bromine- and chlorine-based compounds. A 2009 Clean Production Action case study, "Greening Consumer Electronics," describes the substantial success Apple subsequently achieved based on innovative engineering and close collaboration with its suppliers. The report highlights other similarly successful electronics companies, including Sony Ericsson and Seagate.

Some companies are fearful that making public commitments may compromise their competitive position. This needs to be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. But contrary to this notion, properly conceived and implemented public commitments can actually strengthen their competitive position and the overall health of the enterprise. These declarations:

• invite innovations;
• align and sustain internal efforts;
• forewarn producers of older hazardous chemistries they had better innovate themselves;
• convey corporate responsiveness to consumer concern -- "we acknowledge your worry and rather than circle the wagons to defend this chemical, we'll work to get rid of it";
• trigger a competitive race to the top towards safer chemicals; and
• reassure investors that the company is working systematically to reduce or eliminate a potential toxic liability.

Part two of this three-part series explores developing data on toxic chemicals and their alternatives; part three looks at how companies disclose their toxics footprint and engage in shaping public policy on the issue.

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, The author is engaged with numerous organizations and processes discussed above; mention of commercial products and services should not be construed as endorsement. This article has benefited from comments provided by corporate and NGO colleagues working on toxicity reduction.

Bunsen burner photo CC-licensed by Flickr user exquisitur.