How collaboration can lead to better decisions on safer chemical alternatives

The pressure is mounting on brands to eliminate known chemicals of concern from their products. The European Union’s REACH regulations, Washington State’s Children’s Safe Products Act, and California's Green Chemistry Initiative, with new regulations due out imminently, are but a few examples of the many laws driving companies to identify and eliminate chemicals of concern. Add to this list growing interest and pressure from individual consumers, NGOs and retailers for greater safety and transparency.

The path to elimination can be riddled with challenges. Finding a truly safer substitute that can deliver as good or better performance can be time-consuming and expensive, made difficult by the lack of toxicity and performance data on purported alternatives and the need in many cases to compel suppliers to make the switch.

Some brands are finding that this is an area ripe for collaboration rather than competition. Pooling knowledge, funds and data to evaluate safer alternatives can lower the cost to individual companies; create more robust results; help avoid regrettable substitutions; and ultimately increase the demand, availability and lower the cost of the most promising substitutes.

Collaboration makes even more sense when the target chemical is in a commodity material or component that is common to products sold by multiple brands. Take power cords for example. Many brands want power cords that are free of polyvinyl chloride, brominated flame retardants, and certain phthalate plasticizers. They source these cords from the same group of suppliers. If these brands are aligned on safer chemical alternatives, they stand a greater chance of getting what they want, cheaper and faster, from their supply chain.

The Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) is facilitating an innovative collaborative project, involving brands and suppliers, a university and an NGO to evaluate safer alternatives to toxic plasticizers in wire and cable applications. The goal is to generate useable results for this chemical category and application while developing an effective model for future collaborations. Project members include plasticizer manufacturers Dow, Hallstar, and BASF; plastic compounders Teknor Apex and PolyOne; electronic brands Hewlett-Packard, EMC, and Dell; and retailer Staples; the University of Massachusetts Lowell; and NGO Clean Production Action.

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