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The Right Chemistry

5 essential practices help assure safer chemicals in products

Campaigners unite under common frame for holding businesses responsible for safer chemicals use. Disclosure and informed substitution are key.

The U.S. is home to a vibrant network of “market campaigners” — environmental health advocates and social media active consumers — calling for safer chemical use in business practices. I’m one of them. To some companies, we’re a nuisance and scaremonger, while others see us as important catalysts. We’re increasingly forging constructive partnerships with businesses who share our chemical concerns.

Market campaigns for safer chemicals are now a global phenomenon. In China, NGOs are mapping toxic discharges from factories and ranking Chinese companies on their disclosure and cleanup efforts. Their target audience is B2B buyers because green procurement demands can be so effective. Since 2011, brands such as Adidas, Nike, H&M, Levis and Benetton have been the focus of an international Greenpeace campaign to hold their supply chains accountable for contributing to the massive pollution of China’s rivers, with the result that these companies and the apparel and footwear sector are collectively screening and assessing chemicals for elimination by 2020. 

So how can businesses pick up the pace in removing these chemicals from our economy? Taking a “whack-a-mole” approach — serially targeting individual chemicals — barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done. And too often, substitute chemicals have proven equally hazardous.

The Five Essential Practices for retailers, brand owners and suppliers are the outcome of many discussions within market campaigners’ Workgroup for Safe Markets. We knew we needed an agreed frame that would both unify our collective efforts and clarify our goals for the business community. The five practices reflect the BizNGO Principles for Safer Chemicals endorsed by over 60 companies (including such household names as Hewlett-Packard, Staples and Kaiser Permanente) because campaigners want to reflect best practice and drive maximum uptake over the next five years. 

1. Establish a goal of seeking safer chemicals

The first of the Five Essential Practices states, “Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should establish a goal of reducing and eliminating the use of chemicals and materials of concern in products and manufacturing processes, and replacing them with alternatives that are transparently safer.”

This sounds reasonable, but we constantly discover that few companies or retailers have a comprehensive chemicals policy. Considering that the U.S. federal chemicals policy is 39 years out of date and in need of urgent reform, companies that simply comply with regulations will fall short of what’s needed in the 21st century. The Getting Ready for Baby retailer campaign and the newly launched Dollar Store retailer campaign (also known as the Campaign for Healthier Solutions) are working to dialogue with CEOs over a new policy platform. Dollar store campaigners are using the Five Essential Practices to compare the policies of discount retailers against those of Walmart and Target (PDF) to show how change is indeed possible.

2. Disclose all chemical ingredients

We live in the age of radical transparency, so “retailers and brand owners should know and publicly disclose the chemical ingredients in their products, product packaging and manufacturing processes.”

Campaigns by Women’s Voices for the Earth and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics doggedly have pushed companies to reveal their chemical ingredients. As of January, Walmart is requiring its suppliers of personal care products and consumables to publicly disclose this information. Such requirements were not thought possible five years ago and now set a realistic bar for other product sectors.

3. Identify chemicals of concern

Groups demonstrating outside Walgreens or any other of the 10 retailers targeted by the Mind the Store retailer campaign are essentially asking for safer products on the shelves. To this end, according to the campaign, “retailers, brand owners and suppliers should identify chemicals and materials in their products and/or supply chains for chemicals of concern for substitution with safer alternatives that have undergone comprehensive hazard screening.”

4. Actively seek safer alternatives

The fourth Essential Practice builds on the third, instructing companies to “conduct or require alternatives assessment for chemicals of concern.”

With disclosures comes the ability to dive into the hazard profile of chemicals. Supply chains (including businesses, their upstream suppliers, workers and downstream customers) historically have relied on MSDSs (Material Safety Data Sheets) for information on chemicals and their hazards. But MSDS sheets are often regarded as incomprehensible and incomplete, especially by those within businesses leading the charge for safer chemicals principles and practices.

These deficiencies have prompted development of new tools and databases.

The recently launched GreenScreen Store is a new resource for companies and others that offers full GreenScreen assessments (tabular assessments of the hazards of priority chemicals — often for free — across a range of health and environmental concerns) based on actual data or models, and identifying notable data gaps. Anyone with a laptop also can use freely accessible databases such as ChemHAT or the modestly priced Pharos to see how a chemical has been assessed against internationally recognized lists identifying carcinogens, reproductive toxicants and other chemicals of concern.

Data gaps remain an enormous problem. For example, I did a random review of 10 fragrance ingredients listed on SC Johnson’s Fragrance Palette using the provided links to corresponding MSDS and the Pharos tool — only to find that every chemical I checked had no toxicological data whatsoever. We may have disclosure, but we still have no assurance of safety.

A heads-up to companies: How you assess your chemicals will be a big focus in market campaigns. The size of data gaps and level of hazard are surely as important to mitigate your business risk as they are for public assurance that your chemicals are safe for families and the environment.

5. Keep improving, keep reporting

Finally, the last of the Essential Principles states that “retailers, brand owners and suppliers should commit to continuous improvement and publicly report on their progress.”

For those of us embedded in chemicals work, we know change is possible. The advocacy community is incredibly well networked with green chemists, alternatives assessment experts and business leaders and we offer all our expertise to every CEO. At the end of day, we’re all in this together.

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