LOWELL, MA — Strong supplier partnerships, green design objectives, and sharing best practices with government, NGOs and peers have allowed Nike, HP and SC Johnson to weed out toxic materials from their products.

But the process is never-ending and fraught with challenges of gathering sound chemical data, such as suppliers' unwillingness or inability to make the disclosures, according to a new report from the Green Chemistry in Commerce Council.

The group produced three case studies on Nike, HP and SC Johnson in an attempt to collect and share best practices gleaned from the corporate heavyweights at a time of increasing attention being paid to the materials used in consumer products.

Regulatory concerns, consumer demand and green certification programs are driving companies to collect chemical information from their supply chains, which often stretch across borders and continents. Interviews with the companies revealed a broad range of programs created using this type of information, including Nike's Considered Index sustainable product design tool, SC Johnson's Greenlist scorecard and HP's General Specification for the Environment.

But accessing the data from "down the supply chain" involves a range of barriers. Suppliers may not be able to hand over the information because they buy chemicals from others who can't or won't provide the information. They may have the data but won't share it because they're afraid of losing customers, giving away trade secrets, or opening themselves up to liability. Some won't act without incentives, existing laws or a clear understanding of what the information will be used for.

But passing chemical information "up the supply chain" can also present a challenge, even though showing suppliers how their chemicals are being used can improve safety performance.

The report found that Nike, HP and SC Johnson have advanced from ensuring that specific hazardous chemicals are not in their products to identifying chemicals that are found in their products and evaluating their safety. For example, HP is gathering data on 240 chemicals that aren't yet restricted but are of "emerging concern."

The companies in the case studies have also found safety in numbers, meaning that partnerships with their peers or government have yielded beneficial results. For instance, SC Johnson's work with the EPA's Design for Environment Program's Formulator Program gave it direct access to EPA scientists and risk reduction staff in order to produce better health and environmental product profiles.

The case studies and a summary can be accessed through the Green Chemistry in Commerce Council.

Image CC-licensed by Flickr user protographer23.