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Two Steps Forward

Target and GoodGuide team up to rate sustainable products

<p>Can the retail giant and the UL Environment brand out-Walmart Walmart?</p>

Retail giant Target has partnered with GoodGuide, the products-rating website acquired last year by Underwriters Laboratories, to create a rating systems for thousands of consumer products, the retailer has announced.

In an email sent to suppliers representing some 7,500 products last Thursday, Target announced a Sustainability Product Standard, “a set of criteria for what defines a more ‘sustainable product’ at Target.” The standard will first roll out in three categories: household cleaners, personal care & beauty, & baby care.

The standard has been developed over the last two years in partnership with “many vendors, industry experts, NGOs and internal partners,” according to Christina Hennington, the company’s VP merchandise manager of Beauty and Personal Care, who sent the email, which was sent to me by one of company’s suppliers.

The new standard will be implemented with the help of GoodGuide, the online product rating system acquired last year by UL Environment. GoodGuide began its life as a tool to help consumers make purchasing decisions that incorporate environmental and health considerations. But along the way, it built a massive database of product and company information.

“What we did is customize the GoodGuide platform to Targets standard so they can screen their suppliers and products to their standard,” Dara O’Rourke, UC Berkeley professor and GoodGuide’s co-founder, told me. The platform screens products and rates them on chemicals, transparency, packaging, environmental impact and animal testing.

It’s hard not to compare and contrast the program with that of another large retailer, which recently issued its own program on phasing out chemicals from its products, and which has been engaging in a years-long effort to assess suppliers and products on sustainability metrics.

I asked Kate Heiny, Target’s senior group manager of sustainability, if her company was trying to pre-empt Walmart. Not surprisingly, she demurred to make a comparison. “I think preempting is a surprising word to be sort of bandied about. We've been working on this, developing the standard and the tool for the past two years.”

O’Rourke was less reticent to weigh in. “It differentiates Target from Walmart in a number of ways,” he told me. “Target is using this standard and this process to try to incentivize innovation among their vendors. They're really using carrots, not sticks. This isn't a ban of chemicals, this is a program to incentivize greater disclosure and continuous improvement in the full assortment of the products they offer in their stores.”

But, he noted, Target’s and Walmart’s goals are pretty similar: “They both want to move the industry away from some chemicals.”

The tool was developed in large part in response to Target customers, or “guests,” in their parlance, says Heiny. “In 2010, when we released our sustainability commitments, the second of which was that we will expand our selection of sustainable product choices, we said, ‘Okay, so what's a sustainable product and where should we start with this?’ Being a mass retailer, we have so many options. We took the lens of what is our guest most concerned about and what are product categories and the topics that she is most interested in?

“And what we heard was that she said, ‘I care about what goes in my body, on my body, and around my body.’ And when you look at all the products throughout a Target store, that's household cleaning, personal care and beauty and, of course, baby personal care. Those are the ones that are of most importance and of greatest interest to her. And in those spaces, you know as well as I do that chemicals are the most material issues in those products.”

The Target initiative also marks a milestone for GoodGuide — specifically, the launch of the UL Transparency Platform, “a decision support platform that enables retailers and manufacturers to collect data up and down their supply chain, to analyze the data through customized screening and rating engines, and to evaluated materials, ingredients, products, or vendors for almost any sustainability or performance attribute,” according to UL Environment. The tool “is scalable and can be customized for virtually any product or industry, and against virtually any criteria,” says the company.

“This is our first public release for the B2B tools for GoodGuide,” says O’Rourke. “It's super exciting for me. Our mission from the start was to empower consumers to vote with their dollars and select products that were better for them and the environment. This new B2B platform empowers a buyer at Target, who has much more leverage and buying power, to really employ her own standard for putting safer, healthier products on the shelves.”

Not everyone is convinced about the value of the GoodGuide platform. “While it's welcome news that Target is addressing the sustainability of chemical ingredients in the products, it is impossible to know what that means as UL’s Transparency Platform is not, at least as of today, transparent,” says Mark Rossi, co-director, BizNGO & Management, at Clean Production Action, an activist group working to advance green chemicals, sustainable materials and environmentally preferable products. “Overall, I applaud Target for launching its Sustainable Product Standard. However, there is too little information to know what its standard will mean in practice.”

Within the next two months Target suppliers will be asked to set up an account with GoodGuide, according to Hennington’s email. “At that time, you will have the option to put your products through the full assessment to qualify your products relative to the criteria set forth in the Sustainability Product Standard.” Items that pass a minimum threshold set by Target will be qualified and have access to “incremental merchandising and marketing assets not otherwise available to other brands,” including advertising space.

Hennington continued: “Please be aware that we will require all items in the aforementioned categories to be assessed against the Sustainable Product Standard at a future date (TBD) but will assign a score of 0 for any brands that opt out of the assessment at this time.”

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