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Don't Know Your Company's Toxic Footprint? Ignorance Will Not Be Bliss

The noose continues to tighten around toxic chemicals in products and corporate supply chains.

Notwithstanding the protestations of some trade associations about their products' safety, it's becoming increasingly clear that if your company has a high profile chemical in your product or your supply chain, the likelihood of your suffering toxic lockout from the marketplace and having your supply chain disrupted is increasing rapidly.

State legislation ordering preparation of lists of "chemicals of concern" is accelerating. For example, earlier this month, Minnesota enacted a new comprehensive chemical management law. It requires state officials to generate a list of chemicals of high concern and a list of priority chemicals in children's products, and by December 2010, the officials must issue a report to the legislature with recommendations to address priority chemicals in children's products, how to move to safer alternatives, and identify incentives for product designs that use green chemistry.

In late 2008, California enacted AB1879 (pdf), which directs the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to develop a framework for addressing chemicals of concern, evaluating alternatives, and moving toward safer chemical products. A related bill, SB509 (pdf), calls for the state to increase information about toxicity and make it available via an online portal. Similar enactments in 2008 include Maine's "Act to Protect Children's Health and the Environment from Toxic Chemicals in Toys and Children's Products" (pdf) and Washington's "Children's Safe Products Act of 2008" (pdf).

Wal-Mart's new "GreenWERCS Chemical Screening Tool" is going live this month. Developed by Wal-Mart contractor The WERCS, the tool is intended to identify chemicals' potential environmental impact and drive green chemistry innovation. The tool, which will also be used by Sears and Kmart, scores and weights chemical product characteristics, such as how long chemicals persist in the environment and whether they build up in living systems, and whether they are linked to cancer, mutations and reproductive problems. The tool also examines their implications for hazardous waste management.

Companies seeking to get ahead of the regulatory curve will also want to consider the virtues of SIN. SIN is an acronym for "Substitute It Now," a list of 267 chemicals that have been identified as "Substances of Very High Concern" based on criteria established by the European Union's new chemical management legislation, REACH. The list was generated by a European advocacy organization, The International Chemical Secretariat (CHEMSEC) and at this time is almost twenty times larger than the initial official list released by the European Chemicals Agency.

The SIN list is being taken seriously by Carrefour, Europe's leading retailer and the second largest supermarket chain in the world after Wal-Mart. Carrefour reportedly has drawn up a "pre-list" of 600 substances of very high concern, which together with the SIN List is sent to suppliers "so that they can begin work on substitution" (pdf). B&Q, the European equivalent of The Home Depot and Lowe's, similarly is being proactive (pdf). The company notes that the SIN list provides "an early warning system for substances that are likely to appear on the official REACH 'candidate list,' enabling B&Q to move towards elimination/substitution of these chemicals in advance of legislation." 

Innovest, which provides investment research and advice on corporate environmental, social and strategic governance issues, has analyzed the SIN list's potential impact on companies. The Innovest analysis examines not only which products might be impacted, but also evaluates management readiness to address these issues and strategic profit opportunities that might also arise from REACH. The Environmental Defense Fund's Across the Pond report (pdf) has also examined the implications of the SIN list for US manufacturers.

Here in the U.S., the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council, organized by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, has published information on corporate chemical restriction programs. The November 2008 report (pdf), "An Analysis of Corporate Restricted Substance Lists (RSLs) and Their Implications for Green Chemistry and Design for Environment," accompanied by a spreadsheet of substances, examines regulatory drivers, market drivers, and the role of non-governmental advocacy organizations.

If your company sells into the health care sector, you're likely to come under especially rapid pressure to detoxify your product lines. The leading indicator of such pressure is the CleanMed 2009 conference, convening in Chicago on May 18. Panel topics include such controversial individual chemicals as Bisphenol-A, brominated flame retardants, mercury, and PVC, but also address broader issues such as green cleaning and corporate safer chemicals policies.

The bottom line: Corporate strategic planners who might've been focusing for the last couple of years on their companies' carbon footprints, and who have begun to recognize a need to assess their water footprints, should add their companies' toxic footprints to their "to do" lists.

(Disclosure: I serve on the Green Ribbon Science Advisory Panel of California's green chemistry program, am a stakeholder in Wal-Mart's chemical sustainability program, and participate in the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council.)

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D, is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN Web site,

Image CC licensed by Flickr user indy138.

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