5 lessons on how to tackle toxics from DuPont, 3M and H&M

It’s a company’s worst nightmare: Studies begin to reveal that a high-performing product may be linked to human health issues. The media swarms. Consumers demand action. You’ve not only got to find a safe alternative quickly, but also manage that transition across a global supply chain.

From supplier to manufacturer to retailer, every company involved in the production and sale of a toxic product needs to work together for alternatives to work. And it’s never a simple switch.

Fortunately, it has been done before and done well. The best example in recent history is the global shift away from the use of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) -- the stuff typically used to make everything from fabric to countertops water- or stain-resistant. Since 2003, when PFC toxicity first came to light, chemical suppliers, product manufacturers and retailers have been working to replace PFCs -- particularly one type, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used to make Teflon and associated with various types of cancer -- with safer alternatives. Their journey holds a few key lessons for all companies seeking to eliminate toxics from their supply chain.

Lesson #1: Don’t wait for the media pile-on

Results from several research studies conducted on PFCs in the late 1990s began to roll in during late 2002 and early 2003, each pointing to the same conclusion: PFCs cause developmental and reproductive toxicity. PFOA was deemed carcinogenic by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found conclusive evidence linking exposure to liver, pancreatic, testicular and breast cancers.

DuPont initially fought against the push away from PFOA, insisting that it was perfectly safe at the levels in which humans were being exposed, despite the fact that it was found to be present at low levels in the bloodstream of nearly every person on Earth. That resistance earned it a string of media articles, particularly around Teflon cookware and bakeware -- and a class-action lawsuit.

In 2005, after agreeing to pay more than $100 million to settle a suit brought by workers and local residents at its West Virginia Washington Works plant, DuPont’s tune changed. The company helped convene an independent scientific panel to evaluate links between PFOA and various diseases. The first two reports from that panel have determined a probable link between PFOA exposure and preeclampsia (hypertension in pregnant women), as well as kidney and testicular cancers. Several other reports are due out by the end of this year.

In 2006, the eight companies producing the highest volumes of PFOA, including DuPont, were ready to commit to a 95 percent reduction of usage and emissions (based on year 2000 levels) by 2010, along with a complete phase-out no later than 2015. But by then, the largest producers in the group -- 3M and DuPont -- were under particular scrutiny. 3M stopped producing PFOA entirely by the end of 2008. DuPont met the 95 percent reduction goal and is on track to eliminate PFOA from its products entirely by 2015.

Photo of toxic-poinson blocks provided by Curioso via Shutterstock

Next page: Lesson #2: Find good partners