From Facebook to Ashley Furniture, use of toxic flame retardants wanes

The Right Chemistry

From Facebook to Ashley Furniture, use of toxic flame retardants wanes

Increased awareness of health issues associated with toxic flame retardants is compelling retailers and major buyers to reconsider whether the chemicals are worth the risk.

Toxic flame retardants in furniture soon may be a thing of the past, thanks to recent improvements to California’s flammability standards.

That policy action, combined with consumer advocacy, have helped prompt some of the biggest retailers and manufacturers of furniture in the country to eliminate these harmful chemicals, wielding their multibillion-dollar purchasing power to drive the market away from toxic chemicals in furniture.

The shift comes as a growing body of credible scientific evidence has linked exposure to flame retardants to health problems on the rise, including certain cancers and neurological effects in children.

The biggest commitment came when Ashley Furniture declared a time frame for banning toxic flame retardant chemicals in all its furniture. Ashley is the largest manufacturer and retailer of furniture in U.S. and is one of the biggest globally as well. 

It is a top-selling furniture store brand to retail partners in over 120 countries worldwide, and licenses its name to some 500 Ashley Furniture HomeStores. In 2013, sales totaled $3.85 billion.

The Chicago Tribune — which previously published a prize-winning investigative report in 2012 about the chemical industry’s efforts to block state legislative restrictions on flame retardants through creation of “Citizens for Fire Safety” and other questionable tactics — first broke the story of Ashley’s policy shift.

The company declared that after working closely with its supply chain, “upholstered furniture manufactured by or for us as of Jan. 1 ... does not use flame retardant chemicals.” The policy applies not only to foam in the furniture, but also to textiles and fabric.

Our Mind the Store Campaign, which has been challenging major retailers to wield their market influence to promote safer chemicals and products, initially contacted Ashley in November. In January, the Tribune revealed that Ashley was taking action on flame retardants, but wouldn’t say by when.

NGOs generated thousands of e-mails from concerned families urging the company to adopt a public time frame for eliminating these unnecessary harmful chemicals, helping to nudge Ashley toward publicly releasing a time frame in March.

While that one corporate action was big, the ripple effects could be bigger.

“If Ashley follows other companies and stops using flame retardants, the chemicals could be a thing of the past in residential furniture,” Bob Luedeka, executive director of the Polyurethane Foam Association, told the Tribune.

Other retailers take action

Ashley is also not alone. Other major retailers and manufacturers are signaling an intent to tackle these dangerous chemicals.

 “Crate and Barrel, Room & Board and Williams-Sonoma (Pottery Barn, West Elm) all say they have mostly eliminated the chemicals from their products," according to the Tribune. "IKEA, La-Z-Boy, The Futon Shop, Scandinavian Designs and Wal-Mart also said they have told vendors to stop adding flame retardants to furniture."

And that’s not all.

Big office furniture purchasers, such as Facebook, Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and Staples, also have signed a pledge to buy office furniture without toxic flame retardants.

In the first few months of 2015, Ethan Allen, Restoration Hardware and Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams all have said their furniture is also free of toxic flame retardant chemicals.

We're not talking about small market players here.

Restoration Hardware is the No. 8 largest furniture store in the U.S., with furniture sales of $1.2 billion in 2013 — and it's growing, with sales up 35 percent between 2012 and 2013. Ethan Allen is the No. 17 largest furniture store in the U.S., with furniture sales of $702 million in 2013. Those two retailers alone have combined furniture sales of over $2 billion.

The uptick in proactive corporate action also comes at a time when states are taking action on these same chemicals in the absence of real federal chemical reform.

In recent years, a dozen states have passed over two dozen policies banning toxic flame retardants. This year alone, at least 11 states and the District of Columbia are considering policies to phase out the use of, or require labeling of, toxic flame retardants in certain consumer products.

States considering restrictions include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee and Washington.

Just last month, Earthjustice and a coalition of public health and consumer groups, including the International Association of Firefighters, American Academy of Pediatrics and Learning Disabilities Association of America, filed a legal petition with the Consumer Products Safety Commission seeking regulations on flame retardants in furniture, mattresses, children’s products and electronics. 

What about Target, Costco and Macy’s?

Public health advocates are still awaiting word from three other major furniture retailers: Costco; Target; and Macy’s. They’re the seventh, eighth and 10th largest retailers of furniture nationwide, respectively.

NGOs hope these and other big retailers of furniture will join in driving the transition away from these polluting chemicals in furniture and other products.

Doing so not only will yield important public health, environmental and reputational benefits, it also will help retailers and brands anticipate future legal and regulatory challenges associated with these harmful substances.

It’s only a matter of time before more regulations are introduced and enacted at the state, federal and international level, which can be costly for companies that are not “minding the store.”