Walmart's chemical policy: The right formula, but just a first step

Walmart’s new policy (PDF) to require manufacturers of cosmetics and cleaning products to disclose ingredients in their products and remove priority hazardous chemicals signals a new era in sustainability. It’s a critical first step on the path to safer and healthier chemicals in products.

Chemicals, after all, are at the foundation of our material world. All materials and products -- from paper to plastics, from computers to cleaning products -- consist of chemicals. Yet businesses largely have avoided even starting on the journey toward chemical sustainability.

Now many of them will not have a choice. In a single sweep, the world’s largest retailer is pushing companies to go beyond regulatory compliance to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, and to be proactive instead of reactive to the rapidly increasing consumer demand for safer products.

"This is because of the growing and changing expectations from our customers. We hear from our stakeholders, we hear more frequently from media. This issue (chemical sustainability) is rising on the radar in a number of ways," said Brittni Furrow, senior manager of sustainability of Walmart Stores, at a recent meeting.

Consumers want products made with the safest, greenest chemicals possible. They do not want to worry about being exposed to toxic chemicals such as lead, cadmium, bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Yet most companies don’t even know if these chemicals are in their products. They have no idea of the size, scope or impact of their toxic chemical footprint.

Companies that treat chemical concerns as irritating distractions or unjustified attacks are turning a blind eye to circumstances that fundamentally could affect their competitive position. The need for companies to know what’s in their products never has been greater -- as Walmart’s position illustrates. Toxics ignorance creates risk: reputation risk, toxic tort risk and market risk. In many ways, chemicals are the new climate -- they must be a core component of business sustainability programs.

Walmart’s new chemicals policy, which can be summed up as “know, disclose and avoid,” reflects core steps in BizNGO’s Guide to Safer Chemicals -- first reported by GreenBiz last year: 1) know and disclose chemicals, 2) assess and avoid hazards, 3) commit to continuous improvement, and 4) support public policies and industry standards.

The guide provides a comprehensive framework for implementing a corporate chemicals policy for brands and retailers. It charts a course through the challenges companies will face as they move hazardous chemicals out of their supply chains and search for safer alternatives.

Know what’s in your products -- and tell your customers

It seems simple enough, but many companies actually don’t know the full chemical components of the products they sell, and they often can’t even get the information from suppliers when they ask. So the first component of Walmart’s new policy -- requirements for transparency and public disclosure -- is a major step forward in opening up the flow of information in the marketplace.

It remains to be seen how transparent the disclosure by Walmart’s suppliers actually will be, but the principles of knowing and disclosing chemicals are a foundational step in creating a sustainable chemicals policy.

Cleaning product manufacturer Seventh Generation, for example, discloses all chemicals in its products. Hard drive manufacturer Seagate requires suppliers to provide it with all the ingredients in their products.

The open flow of information is crucial not only for building customer trust in an age when consumers demand to know what’s in the products they buy, but also for innovation. The market works best when the most people have access to information, and when business leaders can make fully informed choices.

Avoid chemicals of highest concern

Clearly the market is starting to move ahead of the regulatory environment and away from chemicals of high concern. Walmart will require suppliers to phase out a priority list of eight chemical classes over a period of time.

Some brands already have begun to move in this direction. Procter & Gamble last week announced plans to eliminate phthalates and triclosan from its products due to consumer preference. In 2012, Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove phthalates, triclosan, formaldehyde and parabens from all its personal care products worldwide.

Getting rid of a short list of bad chemicals is an important first step, but obviously, many more chemicals of concern are in the products we bring into our homes and put on our bodies. To stay out front on this issue, companies must have a process to continually assess and improve.

Don’t jump from the frying pan into the fire

Once companies decide to eliminate chemicals of concern, they must assess the safety of alternatives to ensure they don’t end up with a regrettable substitute -- an alternative of equal or greater concern to the chemical being replaced. For example, companies are eliminating BPA in thermal papers, only to replace it with BPS, a chemical similar in structure to BPA that may be another endocrine-disrupting compound.

The GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals is a tool for evaluating chemicals based on their inherent hazards. It benchmarks chemicals on a scale of 1 to 4 (red to green), enabling companies to both identify chemicals of high concern to human health or the environment as well as safer alternatives.

Computer and printer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard, for example, is eliminating toxic phthalates and flame retardants from its products. In order to ensure the alternatives are safer, they require suppliers to provide GreenScreen assessments for chemicals they are replacing and to avoid GreenScreen "Benchmark 1" ("red") chemicals.

This year for the first time, the U.S. Green Building Council incorporated health considerations into its LEED v4 standard for building materials and now offers credits for using GreenScreen. Eight states also point to GreenScreen as a preferred method for assessing chemical hazards.

Assessing and avoiding chemicals of concern using tools such as the GreenScreen is essential to replacing chemicals of concern with safer alternatives.

The destination: safer chemicals

Firms on the path to inherently safer chemicals know the chemicals in their products and supply chains, disclose those chemicals to the public, identify the chemicals of greatest concern to human health or the environment, select safer alternatives and require their suppliers to do the same. These supply chain efforts lead not only to healthier products, but also better alignment with suppliers in areas such as quality and innovation. Safer chemical leaders are funding and overseeing efforts to develop and use safer alternatives.

Walmart’s new chemicals policy firmly sets a standard that the era of merely being in compliance is no longer acceptable. The question now is, how far along on the path to safer chemicals are you and your suppliers?