How Your Input Can Shape Corporate Reporting of Toxic Footprints

The Global Reporting Initiative, the gold standard for corporate sustainability reporting, is inviting suggestions of new topics through June 30 for the upcoming v4 (GRI calls it "G4") of its standards.

This is the initial step in a revision process scheduled to culminate in a revised standard in 2013. Companies that are systematically reducing their products' toxicity and reporting publicly on their progress should submit comments urging GRI to add specific reporting provisions that capture such efforts. Such reporting can highlight leaders and laggards in reducing corporate toxic footprints and promote development of safer chemicals and products.

Companies and trade associations are moving to capture cost savings that can be achieved through toxicity reduction:

They are lowering the reputational and litigation risks that can arise from manufacturing and selling products containing chemicals hazardous to human health and the environment. They are establishing programs and policies (including supply chain inventories) for identifying chemicals; creating restricted substances lists ("RSLs") to ban, phase out, or monitor chemicals; and designing metrics for assessing and publicly reporting progress.

These initiatives are labeled, variously, safer materials or environmentally preferable purchasing programs. Some programs are going beyond identification of specific chemicals of concern and are insisting on complete disclosure of chemicals in their supply chains. These are the types of programs that should routinely be described in corporate sustainability reports.

Companies and some trade associations are moving in advance of regulatory processes for toxic chemicals that, though tightening in recent years, are protracted and fragmented. For example, the European Union's REACH chemicals management strategy is scheduled to be implemented over 12 years. In the U.S., in the absence of overdue updating of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, individual U.S. states have targeted individual chemicals and products, creating a patchwork of requirements for manufacturers and retailers.

One of the longest-running toxic footprint reduction programs is SC Johnson and Son, Inc.'s Greenlist program for scoring and reducing the toxicity of chemicals in its products. Chemicals are ranked from 0-3, with higher scores denoting the lowest hazard. SC Johnson statistics show a dramatic change between 2000 and 2009 in chemical use, with the proportion of the zero-rated chemicals declining from 10 percent to 1 percent and the proportion of the two highest-scoring chemical categories increasing from 18 percent to 43 percent.

Wal-Mart's chemical policy states the company will "provide to our customers affordable and effective products in which all chemicals are evaluated for potential health and environmental impacts delivered in the most efficient and effective way." Wal-Mart has partnered with TheWERCs in creation of GreenWERCS screening software to accomplish product evaluation while protecting proprietary formulation data.