Measuring progress to SDGs with a chemicals management survey

The Right Chemistry

Measuring progress to SDGs with a chemicals management survey

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Hazardous chemicals in our environment impede our progress to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) in its third annual survey results reported noteworthy progress in chemical footprint reduction, with seven companies reporting reductions totaling 94 million pounds of hazardous chemicals in products, and two companies reporting the elimination of 10 unsafe chemicals in products over the past two years.

Global exposures to hazardous chemicals and associated costs are significant. In 2016, the World Health Organization estimated that 164,400 deaths occur annually from unintentional poisonings caused by chemical exposures at home and in the workplace. Researchers recently have determined that everyday products — including pesticides, coatings, printing inks, adhesives, cleaning agents and personal care products — produce more volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions than cars in industrialized urban areas (McDonald, Science 359, No. 6377, 2018). And a recent evaluation of the global health costs from environmental chemical exposures is estimated to exceed 10 percent of global GDP, or $11 trillion (Grandjean and Bellanger, Environmental Health 16, No. 123, 2017).

Individuals, institutions and B2B customers are increasingly concerned about hazardous chemicals in everyday products and are requesting those made with the safest and healthiest ingredients. For example, Google invests in green building materials because it wants healthy, productive employees — as the company states in the environment project’s title: "Smelling the carpet: Making buildings healthier, along with the people in them."

SDGs and chemical footprinting

The SDGs set ambitious targets for improving global health by reducing dependence on hazardous chemicals:

  • SDG Goal No. 3 — Target 3.9: by 2030, substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution.
  • SDG Goal No. 6 — Target 6.3: by 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials.
  • SDG Goal No. 12 — Target 12.4: by 2030, achieve the environmentally sound management of chemicals and all wastes throughout their life cycle.

A 20-question survey from the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) can be used by corporations to track their progress to SDG Targets 3.9, 6.3 and 12.4. The CFP Survey evaluates companies on their chemical and material management policies, procedures and practices through four key pillars: management strategy; chemical inventory; footprint measurement; and disclosure and verification.

The most effective means to achieve the chemical-related SDG targets is to avoid the use of hazardous chemicals. The CFP Survey documents the progress companies are making towards:

  • Developing and executing the policies necessary to achieve the SDGs.
  • Knowing the chemicals in their products and supply chains, an essential step towards implementing and measuring chemical footprint reductions.
  • Measuring and reducing their chemical footprint — this metric can be used to measure quantitative progress to achieving SDG Targets 3.9 and 6.3.
  • Publicly disclosing information on policies, goals and progress.

Continuous improvement

Already, three years of CFP Survey results highlight the growing capacity of companies to develop and execute comprehensive chemicals management programs necessary to meet the SDGs. Companies reporting to the CFP Survey are demonstrating progress across all four pillars:

  • Management strategy: creating and making public comprehensive chemicals management policies that state the position of the organization and senior management on improving chemical and material health — companies achieved 67 percent of possible points in 2017 for corporate policies, up from 42 percent in in 2015.
  • Chemical inventory: collecting full chemical ingredient information from suppliers, that is, all chemicals, not only chemicals of high concern (CoHC) or chemicals on restricted substances lists (RSLs) — 84 percent of 2017 survey respondents collected full chemical ingredient information for some of their products.
  • Footprint measurement: calculating chemical footprint. Chemical footprinting establishes the foundation for setting quantitative goals and measuring progress away from CoHC toward safer solutions — 75 percent of 2017 survey respondents calculated their chemical footprints.
  • Disclosure and verification: making CFP Survey responses and scores publicly available. Companies opening the door to their chemicals management journeys include Beautycounter, BD, Case Medical, GOJO Industries, Humanscale, Levi Strauss & Co., Milliken & Company, Naturepedic, Radio Flyer, Seagate Technology and Seventh Generation.

Chemical footprint use and reductions

The survey specifies how companies need to measure their chemical footprint, thereby providing a replicable and scalable method for measuring progress away from hazardous chemicals to safer solutions. Leading companies report CoHCs in products by mass or count. Using the GreenScreen List Translator, CFP specifies over 2,200 hazardous chemicals. The percent of companies calculating their footprint using this comprehensive list of hazardous chemicals grew from 29 percent in 2015 to 63 percent in 2017:

  • 21 percent reported zero chemical footprint because their products contain no intentionally added CoHCs;
  • 29 percent calculated CoHCs by mass and reported over 592 million pounds of CoHCs in products sold or shipped; and
  • 13 percent calculated CoHCs by count and reported using 88 CoHCs (note some companies reporting mass also reported count).

Many companies get started in calculating their chemical footprint by reporting on select product lines or a single division rather than their entire product portfolio.

Informed decision-making 

Signatories to the CFP Survey include investors, retailers, large-scale purchasers and NGOs. For investors, the Chemical Footprint Project: 

  • Supports efforts to evaluate corporate progress towards the SDGs and compliance with Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standards;
  • Offers insights into corporate chemicals management and supply chain management;
  • Is a proxy for good corporate governance practice and comprehensive sustainability programs;
  • Provides a platform for engaging companies in a dialogue on their chemicals management initiatives; and
  • Informs investment decision making. 

Responders are meeting the needs of customers, such as Vizient, the nation’s largest group purchasing organization (GPO) for health care products representing about $100 billion in annual purchasing volume. As Cristina Indiveri, senior director, environmentally preferred sourcing at Vizient explained, "By identifying and standardizing priorities for chemical safety in the products in our contracts, and creating transparency around chemical and environmental attributes, we enable our members to make informed purchasing decisions, improving their ability to deliver excellent health care."

Next steps 

Companies have a ready means to track their progress to SDGs through a replicable, independent, third-party standard. Active strategies to know and act upon information on chemicals in products and supply chains will generate long-term value for companies, their shareholders, the public and the planet.