Why every company has a chemical footprint

The Right Chemistry

Why every company has a chemical footprint

Image by pedrosala via Shutterstock.

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.

A community of leaders from businesses, environmental organizations, government agencies and universities identified these actions as critical to the advancement of safer chemicals, forming them into a set of principles known as the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals. We see evidence of these actions by leading downstream businesses including HP, Nike, Whole Foods Market, Seagate, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health, Construction Specialties, Method, Seventh Generation, Google and Staples.

Pioneering initiatives that exemplify how to measure and act on one's chemical footprint include the:

• BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals
• Outdoor Industry Association's (OIA) Chemical Management Framework
• Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Programme
• The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics Retailers Therapy report

The Guide to Safer Chemicals is a hands-on guide that charts pathways to safer chemicals in products and supply chains for brand name companies, product manufacturers, architects and designers, retailers and health care organizations. The guide uses a hiking metaphor of four benchmarks -- Trailhead, Base Camp, High Camp and Summit -- for the journey to implementing the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals.

The benchmarks are indicators of performance that increase in complexity and difficulty, beginning from Trailhead, which consists of actions commonly taken by organizations first, to moving beyond compliance reach the Summit level, where actions are taken by only a few. The guide also presents examples of business practices for each benchmark and describes how downstream users are getting started and advancing on their paths to safer chemicals.

Dignity Health, for example, became the first organization to use the guide and published the results in its 2011 Social Responsibility Report. The company publicly acknowledged their work to know chemicals in products and to avoid chemicals of concern, their commitment and actions to continuous improvement and their leadership work in supporting voluntary initiatives and public policies that advance the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals.

The OIA Chemical Management Framework, which builds from the BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals, is currently under development and slated for release in 2013. It may be the most comprehensive framework for assessing chemical management performance for downstream users of chemicals. The framework identifies a set of objectives and indicators for each stage in the supply chain from chemical manufacturers to suppliers to brands to retailers. The framework will enable companies to do both a gap analysis in their performance on chemical management as well as to benchmark performance relative to other organizations in their sector. The plan is to integrate the OIA Chemical Management Framework into the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's sustainability index -- The Higg Index.

ZDHC is perhaps the most ambitious voluntary initiative with implementation metrics to address chemicals in products and supply chains. A coalition of apparel and footwear companies, including Adidas, C&A, G-Star Raw, H&M, Jack Wolfskin, Levi Strauss & Co., Li Ning, Nike and Puma, have agreed to achieve the goal of zero discharge and use of hazardous chemicals from the production of apparel, footwear and accessory goods by 2020. ZDHC defines "zero discharge" broadly: The "elimination of all releases, via all pathways of release, i.e. discharges, emissions and losses, from our supply chains and our products. In light of the increasing sophistication of analytical tools and methods, references to 'elimination' or 'zero' must be understood as 'not above background concentration' rather than 'not detectable.'"

The "Joint Roadmap" specifies 16 projects including: knowing chemicals in supply chains; exploring how to publicly disclose chemicals; assessing hazards of chemicals used; avoiding 11 chemicals of concern; identifying other chemicals of concern; and specifying greener chemistries.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in its Retailer Therapy report ranked eight retailers on their commitment to addressing chemical concerns in personal care products. The campaign ranked the retailers on a scale of 1 to 10 kisses. They evaluated and ranked retailers on their performance in three core areas:

• Internal Policy: Does the retailer have a policy to source products that do not contain chemicals of concern, and/or instruct its vendors to avoid chemicals of concern?
• Safer Alternatives: Does the retailer offer a selection of safer alternatives and seek to expand availability of safer products, including options that are more affordable and cost competitive?
• Transparency: Is the retailer transparent about its policies and its progress in meeting its goals and is this information easy to find on its website, corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports and/or in its stores?

The campaign is advocating for retailers to start requesting that their vendors eliminate hazardous ingredients, to stop selling products from vendors that do not comply and to eliminate hazardous chemicals in their private brands.

The value of chemical footprinting is its focus on being proactive. It places organizations on the path of moving away from being passive actors whose only concern is legal compliance to being active participants in advancing the use of safer, greener chemicals. Chemical footprinting will help to:

• Provide a gap analysis of an organization's performance in managing chemicals.
• Identify opportunities for action.
• Enable benchmarking of performance within a sector.
• Highlight the need for collaboration, including sharing data, best practices and failures.

The BizNGO, OIA, ZDHC, and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics initiatives illustrate the scope and direction that chemical footprinting is heading. With growing demand from retailers, brands, advocacy organizations and consumers for clear metrics of chemical performance, chemical footprinting is the next frontier in sustainability reporting.

Image by pedrosala via Shutterstock.