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The Right Chemistry

Dollar General, Sephora, Lowe's among 7 most improved retailers addressing toxic chemicals

Sales of products marketed as sustainable are growing 5.6 times faster than conventionally marketed products.


"With great market power comes great responsibility," to paraphrase Voltaire (and "Spider-Man’s" Uncle Ben). Major retail chains that understand that concept are stepping up to meet customer demand for improved product safety and sustainability in the face of a radical federal regulatory retreat.

Over the past year, Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has continued to undermine recent reforms to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the nation’s primary law that is supposed to ensure chemical safety. The EPA has weakened or delayed action on hazardous chemicals that can cause cancer, reproductive harm and other serious illnesses.

And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), operating under an outdated 60-year-old law on food additives, has failed to apply modern science to assess the safety of thousands of toxic chemicals still used in food packaging and processing.

Retailers can fill this void by adopting and implementing comprehensive safer chemicals policies to phase out and eliminate chemicals that may be harmful to public health and the environment from their products and packaging. There is a growing business case to act. Retailers can mitigate significant reputational, financial, regulatory and legal risks associated with toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, those businesses that manage chemical risks can reap great rewards.

In the largest analysis of its kind, 63 percent of evaluated companies improved over the past year alone.
A recent extensive research study into U.S. consumer packaged goods (CPG) found that 50 percent of CPG growth from 2013 to 2018 came from sustainability-marketed products (which include products labeled as free from certain toxic chemicals), despite that sustainability-marketed products represented only 16.6 percent of the CPG market in dollar sales in 2018. The researchers also found products marketed as sustainable grew 5.6 times faster than conventionally marketed products.

Who stepped up on toxics in 2019?

As we settle into 2020, let’s step back to see how retailers leveraged their market power and influence to safeguard customers, communities and workers from toxic chemicals in 2019.

In the fourth annual Who’s Minding the Store? Retailer Report Card, our campaign, Mind the Store, benchmarked a diverse group of 43 of the largest retailers in the United States and Canada on their progress in ensuring the chemical safety of the products and packaging they sell at more than 190,000 retail stores and online.

In the largest analysis of its kind, 63 percent of evaluated companies improved over the past year alone. The study also found a dramatic improvement in retailer chemical action from 2016 to 2019, with the average grade moving from D-plus to B-minus (for the 11 retailers evaluated since 2016).

Of the 43 major retail chains we evaluated, seven stood out as "most improved" over the last year:

Ahold Delhaize: The fourth-largest U.S. retail grocery and largest on the East Coast, Ahold Delhaize USA owns popular grocery brands Food Lion, Giant Food, Hannaford and Stop & Shop. The company recently adopted a comprehensive commitment to sustainable chemistry that will prohibit the intentional use of several classes of toxic chemicals, including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), ortho-phthalates and bisphenols in its private-label products and packaging. This marks one of the first retail commitments to end the use of key classes of dangerous chemicals in food packaging.

Bed Bath & Beyond: Along with its subsidiary BuyBuy BABY, the company expanded its safer chemicals policy to restrict priority chemicals in personal care, cleaning and cosmetics products. Bed Bath & Beyond also committed to reformulating its private-label baby products to remove certain chemicals of high concern (CHCs). The company will end the use of flame-retardant chemicals in certain padded products and reduce the use in other products.

Dollar General: In 2019, this leading discount retailer adopted its first safer chemicals policy, which applies to its private-label home cleaning, beauty and personal care products. The policy includes a list of eight chemicals it will ban by December 2022: formaldehyde; toluene; triclosan; nonylphenol ethoxylates; butylparaben; propylparaben; trichloroethylene; and triclocarban, The company also will encourage national brand suppliers of products in these categories "to reduce or eliminate their use of the chemicals in products sold to Dollar General."

Lowe’s: In late 2018, Lowe’s launched its first comprehensive safer chemicals policy, which pledges a systematic approach to disclosure of chemical use and reduction or elimination of chemicals of concern, with annual public reporting on its progress. In November 2019, Lowe’s expanded the policy to restrict PFAS in carpets and rugs, as well as other chemicals of high concern in flooring, insulation, and paints. 

Panera Bread: This market leader in fast-casual food service has restricted the use of dozens of toxic chemicals in its food packaging, including phthalates and bisphenols, and has begun to phase out all use of PFAS in grease-resistant coatings, starting with baguette bags. This year, for its food handling gloves, Panera replaced PVC (vinyl) plastic, which is full of chemical additives and has a highly toxic lifecycle, with a safer alternative, polyethylene plastic.

Sephora: In 2019, this leading retailer of cosmetics launched its first safer chemicals policy and expanded its restrictions, beyond those legally mandated, on the use of certain chemicals to branded products it sells. Building on its voluntary Clean at Sephora program, the company has set a goal to reduce CHCs in brand-name formulated products by 50 percent over the next three years and to report on progress.

Staples: In 2019, this leading office supply retailer adopted its first public-facing safer chemicals policy. The company named a list of priority CHCs that it will ask suppliers to reduce, including PFAS and halogenated flame retardants. Demonstrating leadership among its competitors, Staples explicitly called out concern about endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Overall, the companies with the strongest safer chemicals policies and practices were Apple, Target, Walmart and IKEA.
We commend these seven companies for stepping up to meet the rising consumer demand for safer products and packaging, earning the distinction of "most improved" over the past year. 

Overall, the companies with the strongest safer chemicals policies and practices were Apple, Target, Walmart and IKEA, according to the survey. These companies continue to lead the retail sector in acting on toxic chemicals.

Other retailers must mind the store

In contrast, 14 retailers, or about one-third of all retailers evaluated, received F grades for failing to adopt even basic public safer chemicals policies to address toxics that may be in their products and packaging. Nine retailers failed to score even a single point out of the possible total of 146.5 points. The worst performing retail sector was restaurants, with an F grade average for six retailers.

To reduce potential liability and reputational risk, and meet customers’ growing expectation that products and packaging will be free from dangerous chemicals, we strongly recommend that every retail chain in 2020:

  • Adopt a written public policy and program to transition to safer chemicals;
  • Set specific public goals and timelines for reducing and eliminating the use of chemicals of high concern, such as PFAS, phthalates and halogenated flame retardants;
  • Disclose all ingredients of products and packaging with help from its suppliers;
  • Ensure suppliers transition to safer alternatives and avoid regrettable substitution; and
  • Demonstrate continuous improvement in expanding the reach of its safer chemicals policy.

Retailers that implement these improvements can help bring healthier products into the hands of consumers and drive the development of safer chemicals and green chemistry solutions. That’s a resolution all retailers should adopt for 2020.

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