Skip to main content

The Right Chemistry

The rise of the non-toxic buyer: 6 case studies on safer chemistry

Purchasing decisions can advance safer chemistry — if done right.

Public and private sector green purchasing programs first began in the 1990s, and they’ve been growing in number and scope ever since.

Environmentally preferable purchasing (EPP) programs initially focused on recycled content and energy efficiency. Now, they are increasingly taking into account the issue of toxicity, nudging buyers toward the purchase of products with less toxic chemistries.

As a result, supply chains are shifting towards safer, more sustainable products, and transparency is increasing. Greater numbers and categories of products are available that are less harmful to people and the planet.

Institutional purchasers — those making EPP policies and those advocating for such policies — have played, and must continue to play, a key role in moving the market towards products that are less toxic throughout their life cycles.

There is a need for continued pressure on the marketplace to create change.

These entities have the power to move markets, even in the absence of federal chemicals policy. As a recent example, 16 major companies in several sectors pledged to purchase products without chemical flame-retardants, and manufacturers are responding.

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts commissioned a report, "Advancing Safer Chemicals in Products: The Key Role of Purchasing" (PDF), which describes how six public and private sector organizations are taking leadership in screening out toxic chemicals from the products they buy.

The Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, Responsible Purchasing Network and Green Electronics Council co-sponsored this work, and an advisory committee comprised of purchasing experts from around the country provided input. The report is the product of more than a year of research and discussion with leaders in sustainable purchasing.

In addition to the case studies, the report provides information about the growing evidence linking certain toxic substances to public health and environmental harms. It also discusses the key role that purchasers play in driving the availability of products with safer chemistries and provides a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of product certifications.

Finally, the report includes a resource guide with tools, organizations and other resources that can help purchasers understand potentially toxic substances in the products they buy, and how to find safer alternatives.

Follow the leaders

The six programs featured are:

  1. Health care provider Kaiser Permanente’s Supplier Sustainability Score Card that works with suppliers to eliminate or reduce the purchase of products that expose its workers and patients to toxic chemicals. Kaiser Permanente targets products based on known chemicals of concern (fragrances in infant care products) and/or the potential for exposure (DEHP in intravenous bags).
  2. The utility Seattle City Light’s far-reaching policy that reduces the use of hazardous substances, phases out the use of products that pose human health or environmental risks, and increases the use of less harmful alternatives. Seattle City Light has a nine-step process for choosing products with safer chemistries that avoids carcinogens, ozone depleting, reproductive hazards, global warming gasses and more.
  3. Architecture firm Perkins+Will’s publicly available and searchable transparency website that includes a precautionary list of 25 substances of concern commonly found in building and design products, describes why they are of concern and identifies safer alternatives.
  4. Leading Danish retailer Coop's (Danish) efforts to work with its suppliers to eliminate endocrine disruptors and other chemicals of concern in public and private label products sold in its stores. Coop’s policy covers all 3,000 of its private labels, as well as brand name products. 
  5. The federal National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) new process to screen for substances of concern and make it easier to purchase safer products. As part of a larger effort in federal sustainable acquisition, NIH is developing an automated process to screen for 350 substances of concern and make purchasing safer products easier.
  6. The nonprofit organization Oregon Environmental Council’s (OEC) work with public and private institutions to develop and implement policies on safer purchasing. OEC coordinates a coalition of governments, universities, ports, businesses and nonprofits that agree to a six-element framework integrating human health, chemical hazards and safer alternatives into purchasing decisions that influence buildings and indoor environments.

Lessons learned

The case studies describe each subject’s program, along with the drivers that led to the creation of the program, the chemicals targeted and the partnerships that have been created to support the program.

Also addressed are challenges such as how proponents can keep up with changing science, how they track progress, and the lessons that can be helpful to others interested in developing or expanding their own programs to purchase safer products. 

These lessons include:

  • Understand potentially harmful substances in products purchased, then set priorities: Evaluate purchases and identify potential exposure pathways that are specific to your own workers, customers and environmental and public health priorities; create a list of priority chemicals, groups of chemicals or chemical functions likely to be in the products and services you purchase.
  • Create strong policy based on organizational priorities, from which specifications flow: Develop a strong policy or policies about chemicals of concern and your desired outcomes; create clear bid documents and specifications based on that policy.
  • Set goals and track progress: Be clear and transparent about your desired outcomes; make sure your suppliers, users and customers understand program goals; create processes to collect product chemical ingredient information put in place systems to track, evaluate and report progress over time.
  • Include a broad range of chemicals and products: Put in place an approach that sets priorities across a broad range of chemicals, chemical classes and product categories.
  • Understand the marketplace and engage suppliers: Engage your suppliers and service-providers to understand where these chemicals might be found, what their functions are in the products and whether safer alternatives exist or could be developed. While safer products for particular product types might not yet be readily available, there is a need for continued pressure on the marketplace to create change.

The sponsoring organizations, along with Perkins+Will and the Oregon Environmental Council, also participated in a webinar discussing key aspects of the report, case studies and product certifications, which can be viewed here.

More on this topic

More by This Author