Safe and sustainable chemicals: The case for action

[Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the BSR Insight. It is the first part of a two-part series highlighting societal trends and drivers for companies to address chemical impacts. Part two will be published next month and will offer examples and information about how companies can approach chemical management.

In 1975, California implemented a law requiring that foam used in furniture be treated with chemicals to prevent the product from catching fire if placed in an open flame for 12 seconds. Across the United States, furniture manufacturers responded by adding flame retardants to their products.

More recently, however, the effectiveness of these fire retardants in reducing household fires has come under question, and scientific studies now indicate links between certain flame retardants and decreased fertility, lower infant birth weight as well as deficits in physical and mental development in young children.

Fast-forward 38 years, and California’s standard for furniture flammability is being rewritten -- part of a broader change in societal views globally on the risks and benefits of chemicals. For the past several years, activists groups such as the Center for Environmental Health, the Environmental Working Group and the Green Science Policy Institute have been raising consumer awareness and creating successful campaigns to change business practices and laws.

Consider several examples across industries:

The number of chemical regulations is also on the rise, with recently passed laws in California and Washington, and increasing numbers of chemicals covered under Europe’s REACH regulation.

Given the growing market demands, regulations and reputational risks, companies need to understand the impacts of chemical use on society and business and proactively manage their use in products and supply chains.

Next page: Impacts on society and business