This is the second part in a three-part series exploring 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 of this series is focused on corporate commitment: "How Companies Are Committing to Reduce Toxic Footprints." And part three addresses the ways companies disclose their toxics footprint and engage in shaping public policy on the issue: "The Benefits of Coming Clean on Your Company's Toxic Footprint." For background and details about the benchmark referred to throughout this series, please read "An Updated Benchmark for Corporate Green Chemistry Practices."
The data development portion of the benchmark has two principal components:
• Adopt standard procedures for systematically reviewing the chemical composition of company products and promote generation of toxicity data by chemical suppliers; and
• Assess the chemical composition of company products against published lists of known or suspected high priority chemicals, with particular emphasis on such categories as persistent and bioaccumulative substances, carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants, neurotoxicants, and hormone disruptors
"If it's not measured, it's not managed" is a core tenet of sound business operations. So if you want to go down the safer chemicals/green chemistry path, how do you put your hands around it?
Dealing with your company's carbon footprint is challenge enough -- starting with your stack emissions and then extending to the carbon embedded in your products' components and your operating products' own carbon demand. At a cursory glance it might seem near-impossible to take on the hundreds if not thousands of chemicals in your company's supply chain: How do you weigh these chemicals' diverse environmental health impacts -- from acute human toxicity to cancers to impacts on aquatic ecosystems?
There's no perfect answer to this metric question, but leadership companies have begun to devise responses. For example, SC Johnson's Greenlist process rates the materials in its products based on their impact on the environment and human health, rating materials from a zero ("restricted use") to a 3 ("best").
The detailed criteria are elaborated in a superb SC Johnson case study [PDF] prepared for the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council. The goal for individual products and the company as a whole is to continually innovate away from the lowest rated materials and towards the highest. Over a period of six years from the program's beginning, the company increased its two highest categories of raw materials from 4 percent to 18 percent and dropped its zero-rated restricted use materials from 17 percent to 1 percent.
Walmart has developed another scoring system called the GreenWERCS Chemical Screening Tool. The tool, developed in a collaborative process involving suppliers, nongovernmental organizations and software company TheWERCS, is intended to identify chemicals' potential environmental impact and drive green chemistry innovation. The system [PDF] assesses products based on ingredient information provided by suppliers. The tool currently uses 30 separate lists that contain information on about 2,400 chemicals. It generates a score for each product based on chemical composition and allows comparisons among products in the same category. A traffic light system of red, yellow and green is used for comparisons.
Numerous companies have developed less comprehensive yet nevertheless useful approaches to lowering their toxic footprint. These generally involve the creation of "Restricted Substances Lists" or RSLs. Clean Production Action and the Healthy Buildings Network have collaborated to offer a "Red List" -- a list of official lists of "chemicals of high concern", such as persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, and carcinogens, mutagens, and reproductive toxicants.
The Green Chemistry and Commerce Council has provided a useful overview [PDF] of such lists, noting they are driven by regulation, by marketing considerations (will Walmart buy my product, or is there consumer concern about a chemical?), and advocacy by nongovernmental organizations. Companies can measure their progress in reducing their toxic footprint by reporting on reduced use of particular chemicals of concern or groups of chemicals. They can also work with certifiers such as McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry to receive "cradle to cradle" certification of products in their product portfolio; cradle to cradle certification incorporates reduced toxicity criteria.
Leadership companies are eager to share their tools. SC Johnson has made Greenlist available for licensing at no cost, via the consultancy Five Winds International, though companies would incur costs in adapting it to their own product stream. Likewise, Walmart has signaled its willingness to have other retailers engage GreenWERCS. Walmart, with other companies, is working on a "Global Data Synchronization Network Product Ingredient Reporting Project" [PDF] that would enhance movement of product ingredient data within supply chains.
These activities in the U.S. complement data development systems in the European Union, where numerous consultancies are assisting companies in addressing the demands for chemical disclosure, hazard data development, and enhanced supply chain communication required by the EU's newly-enacted chemical management legislation known as REACH.
Many industry trade associations are also contributing constructively to the chemical tracking effort, forging progressive industry-wide lists that member companies should address. For example, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA) has developed an RSL, [PDF] and a multi-company apparel industry working group has created an RSL kit for suppliers that builds on the AAFA's work.
The electronics industry has developed its own "joint industry guide" [PDF] for electronics products. Within the automotive industry, the Suppliers Partnership for the Environment is using the SciVera Lens [PDF] system for assessing and managing chemicals and is collaborating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
NGOs are pitching in as well. Clean Production Action has produced "The Green Screen for Safer Chemicals" that draws on hazard criteria based on the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals and incorporates various restricted substances lists to define four benchmarks of progressively safer chemicals, from the red "Avoid -- Chemical of High Concern" to the green "Prefer -- Safer Chemical." It draws on the work of EPA's Design for the Environment (DfE) Program, has been used to evaluate flame-retardant materials in electronics, and has been drawn upon by both Walmart and Hewlett-Packard, among others.
EPA's DfE program works collaboratively with both companies and environmental NGOs to screen chemicals and promote use of safer materials. DfE screens chemicals and awards DfE certifications to approved products. DfE says its logo reflects a judgment that a "product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class." CleanGredients is a partnership between the NGO GreenBlue, EPA, and industry that provides an online database of chemical ingredients that have been pre-screened against the DfE criteria, with the goal of encouraging their use by product formulators.
CBI -- confidential business information -- is one of the largest barriers to the sharing of information, though chemical engineers in companies have said that reverse engineering can be used to uncover the ingredients in competitors' products. Trade secrets have historically been an obstacle to information sharing, but companies have found creative ways to address them while working towards safer chemicals.
For example, since Walmart sells its own private-label brands, national brand competitors have an understandable reluctance to share their ingredient information; Walmart has built protections into its system that permit toxicity comparisons among products and spur reduced toxicity, but also shield especially sensitive information from disclosure.