In "Through the Looking Glass," Alice asks the Red Queen why they're not getting anywhere even though they're running fast. The Queen replies:
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
For many companies, trying to keep up with and manage the astonishingly rapid changes in customer and regulatory requirements for tracking or restricting chemicals in materials and products often must feel like running on the Red Queen's treadmill.
And the treadmill is speeding up. Here are some ways things are only getting faster:
• Retailer initiatives: Walmart (PDF) and Target (PDF) have launched plans designed to reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals in products they buy from suppliers.
• New state programs: Washington now requires all companies selling children's products to report the presence and concentrations of specified hazardous chemicals, then publishes this data on a website for public viewing. California's new regulations require companies to find safer chemical alternatives to replace 'chemicals of concern' in specific, widely-used consumer products.
• More stringent international chemical restrictions: From Europe's REACH law for hazardous chemicals to a host of new regulations in the growing Asian markets, changes in this field are accelerating. To take a single sector as an example, the American Apparel and Footwear Association's regular updates on global restrictions for chemical residues in clothing included over 150 changes in regulatory scope or national requirements from 2012 to 2013 (see this PDF and this PDF).
Getting off the treadmill
So is there a way to get off the treadmill?
Keeping up with growing demands for chemical data using spreadsheets or simple databases will become increasingly unrealistic. Managers need tools that enable them to organize, analyze and make decisions about chemicals and materials in their supply chains and products — and they need to do this quickly and accurately. When the European Union published the first list of restricted chemicals under its REACH regulations, most companies struggled to determine which of the newly regulated chemicals were in their products, and where the chemicals came from in their supply chains.
One company that has made significant strides in adhering to REACH regulations is Seagate. Because the American data storage company had a comprehensive chemical data management system in place, it was able to react quickly. "We realized early on that we would either have to spend an awful lot of money on resources, or we would have to put in place some tools that could help us automate the process," said Brian Martin, Seagate's senior director for product environmental compliance. "When [the EU REACH] Directive was launched and the list of Substances of Very High Concern came out … we had our first response to the REACH SVHC list within 15 minutes. We confirmed that by polling a subset of our suppliers within the next 48 hours. Within a couple of days, we had a very solid answer to REACH compliance that we could give to our customers with a high degree of credibility."
Martin says the company has one form that contains all its data, which it brings into a software tool that helps it process the data and automate collection from suppliers.
Finding the right solution
Before diving in to a chemical assessment solution, companies should understand the strategic opportunities derived from improved chemical data management and how this can help meet many short-term demands. Additional benefits range from consolidating purchases and reducing costs to improving the environmental or health profile of products. Companies should also consider staffing, budget and any existing systems that may need to be integrated before making a selection.
Once companies understand their needs, they will be able to assess their data management options appropriately to find the right solution.
Many companies have an immediate need to understand the hazardous characteristics of their ingredient and material options. Tools such as the Green Screen List Translator provide this by drawing from global authoritative lists and databases in a single resource. For inventories of chemicals and their hazards based on the materials used in products, companies may turn to options such as the Actio Material Disclosure Tool.
The analytic class of tools encompasses a large field of options including GreenWERCS and SciVera Lens CSA, among others. These expanding solutions help companies understand hazard characteristics, keep inventories and score and analyze materials and products. The latter capability is important in supporting the systematic assessment of safer alternatives. With the arrival last fall of the California Consumer Product chemical alternative assessment regulations, these solutions may prove to be particularly important.
Companies wanting to step off the Red Queen's treadmill should take care to choose the right data management solution to ensure that they have the ability to manage chemical risks and customer and regulatory demands, while deriving additional business benefits. Running with the Red Queen just isn't the answer. But the right software can provide the solution to the Red Queen's dilemma.