It turns out you can't judge a product by its label. Two recent studies found that some consumer products, including those marketed as “green” or chemical-free, included toxic ingredients not listed on their labels.
First the Silent Spring Institute last month found a surprising number of unlabeled toxic chemicals in an assortment of household products, several of which were marketed as being safer alternatives to conventional products. The nonprofit had 213 consumer products (in 50 categories) independently tested by Battelle Labs in Ohio for 66 specific chemicals associated with either endocrine disruption or asthma.
Then this month, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Toxic Substances Control took a closer look at nail care products and found that several products marketed as being free of chemicals of concern, such as toluene and dibutyl phthalate, still contained the chemicals. In fact, in many cases, products labeled as being free of these chemicals contained higher concentrations of them than those that made no such claims.
Consumers and advocacy groups were outraged over both studies and called for stricter labeling requirements and better enforcement of such requirements, but the real question is: Why is mislabeling happening to begin with? It seems difficult to believe that companies -- particularly those taking the trouble to tout their product as green -- would knowingly use ingredients known to be toxic, if only to avoid the PR headache should anyone find out.
The problem, in most cases, is supply chain control, and the solution – simply put – is a matter of knowing your suppliers and getting all the ingredient information you need from them. Unfortunately, while the solution may sound simple, it generally isn't, even for companies with relatively short supply chains. Asking suppliers for information about what’s in various substances just isn't something companies are in the habit of doing.
"Not a lot of companies ask suppliers for full list of substances in products," says Mike Kirschner, president and managing partner of supply chain consulting group Design Chain Associates. "It’s hard to get it from them -- and sometimes it’s hard for the suppliers themselves to know -- but really that’s what you need. The only rational approach to supply chain control is to demand that your suppliers give you full disclosure of substance composition.
"In some cases -- particularly chemical companies -- there are concerns about intellectual property and trade secrets, but they don’t need to disclose particular recipes, just whether or not there are any ingredients that could potentially be of concern."
Even companies that do request such information from suppliers may not be fully covered. It’s not enough to have a supplier fill out a form; the information on that form needs to be vetted as well.
"I think where a lot of these companies fail is they develop a well-intended process -- a sort of 'this is what we stand for' document and survey -- and they send it out to all their suppliers and put it on their website, but executing on that goal is difficult," says Michael Saracini, CEO of Aravo Solutions, a supply-chain management company based in San Francisco. "Processes are great, but they’re still difficult to manage. If you can automate that process more there are fewer gaps, and if you capture all this info in an automated way and then instantly report to the government, NGOs, consumers and so forth to give them a snapshot of where you’re at, that’s much more meaningful."
With NGOs and consumers watching companies more closely than ever, a supply-chain slip-up could prove costly, particularly if it’s one that comes with negative health impacts for consumers. "In general, environmental concerns don't approach the immediacy of economic concerns for consumers," says Rich Liroff, executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network. “But as product-by-product blowups (e.g., Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, Puma/Nike hazardous waste discharges in their supply chain) indicate, consumer-facing companies are particularly sensitive to reputational damage related to specific products.”