Why every company has a chemical footprint

What is your company's chemical footprint?

You may think this question does not apply to your organization because it doesn't use chemicals. Yet all products are made from chemicals. Chemicals are the building blocks of matter, which is what we make products from. Thus all companies use chemicals by virtue of the products they purchase, use and sell. Buildings are also part of the "products" that organizations buy, from the shell to the interior components, such as flooring, wall coverings and chairs.

Concerns about chemicals in products and supply chains are increasingly capturing the attention of business leaders as exemplified by three of GreenBiz's Top 12 stories in 2012:

• No. 1: "McDonald's launches pilot program to drop polystyrene coffee cups"
• No. 5: "Will the Plastics Industry Kill LEED?"
• No. 10: "How Toxic is the iPhone 5?"

This growing concern with chemicals underscores the need for a metric -- a "chemical footprint" -- that will enable businesses to evaluate chemicals just as they evaluate their water, carbon, energy and waste footprints.

Chemical footprinting is in its infancy. Richard Liroff's pioneering work on chemical footprinting at GreenBiz has highlighted the need for companies to know the chemicals in their products, to assess the hazards of those chemicals and to work with suppliers to avoid toxic chemicals and select safer alternatives.

Building from Liroff's work, I define "chemical footprinting" as the process of evaluating progress away from chemicals of concern to human health or the environment to safer chemicals -- chemicals that have a lower hazard profile than the ones they replace (for example, as defined by the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals). In this way, a "chemical footprint" is a measure of the actions an organization takes to advance the development and use of safer chemicals in products and across supply chains. Such actions include:

Knowing chemicals in products and supply chains.
Disclosing chemicals in products and supply chains to the public.
Assessing chemicals in products and supply chains for their inherent hazards.
Acting: selecting safer chemicals and avoiding chemicals of concern to human health and the environment.
Improving: setting goals for improving chemical footprint and publicly reporting on progress towards those goals.
Supporting voluntary initiatives and public policies that advance the avoidance of chemicals of concern and the production and use of safer chemicals.

Next page: Pioneering initiatives