3M has promised to stop making and using harmful "forever chemicals" across its product portfolio by the end of 2025, with the manufacturing giant admitting growing regulatory, consumer and investor concerns over the use of such substances have "increasingly weighed on our business results in recent years."
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been used for decades to make a huge range of products — from non-stick frying pans and clothing to mobile phones and packaging — but evidence has continued to mount over their harmful consequences for planetary and human health.
Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a raft of health issues including cancers, low birth weights and cardiovascular problems.
They have gained the nickname forever chemicals due to their hardy nature, as they do not break down easily and have therefore been found in harmful quantities in water, soil, food and even in the human body, prompting calls for their manufacture and use to be banned altogether.
The European Union has already indicated it plans to potentially restrict all PFAS from 2025, while the U.S. is reportedly considering placing limits on the level of such substances permitted in drinking water. Canada, Australia and several Asian nations are also reportedly considering action to curb the use of PFAS.
In a bid to get ahead of looming regulatory restrictions, 3M in late December unveiled its own plan to phase out the use and manufacture of PFAS altogether by 2025, in a move it said was motivated by its growing need to satisfy demands from regulators, consumers and its investors.
The phase-out is expected to cost the company up to $2.3 billion, 3M suggested. Currently, the company generates around $1.3 billion in sales each year from making the chemicals.
However, the firm said it had been prompted to act in view of an "evolving external landscape" that was beginning to see the regulatory walls closing in on PFAS worldwide, as well as increasing customer and consumer appetite for more environmentally sustainable materials and chemicals.
It also cited "the challenges of managing businesses and operations with products based on PFAS," which it said had "increasingly weighed on our business results in recent years."
3M nevertheless argued PFAS would continue to be "essential for modern life and can be safely made and used," but that from now on its own focus would be on "applying our science to improve lives and make the greatest impact for out stakeholders."
Ultimately, though, 3M stressed the move to phase out PFAS was a business decision that would help to "position our company for sustainable growth by optimizing our portfolio, continuing to innovate for our customers and delivering long-term value for our shareholders."
"We have already reduced our use of PFAS over the past three years through ongoing research and development and will continue to innovate new solutions for customers," the company said in a statement.
We have already reduced our use of PFAS over the past 3 years through ongoing research and development and will continue to innovate new solutions for customers.
3M's announcement follows similar pledges to phase-out PFAS substances made by a range of firms including McDonald's and Burger King, as well as U.K. supermarkets such as ASDA and the Co-op.
Laurie Valeriano, executive director of U.S. green group Toxic-Free Future, gave 3M's announcement a cautious welcome, but called on the company and the wider sector to be "transparent and only make the safest products based on green chemistry."
"3M should not get any more chances to pollute drinking water, people and wildlife and must be held accountable for its contamination," she said.
The news comes just weeks after a group of 47 investment firms with $8 trillion of assets under management wrote to the CEOs of the world's largest chemicals firms to voice their concerns over the continued manufacture and use of forever chemicals.
"We encourage you to lead, not be led, by phasing out and substituting these chemicals," the letter stated. "In addition to the financial risks associated with litigation, producers of persistent chemicals face the risk of increased costs associated with reformulating products and modifying processes, which can have significant implications for company performance."