The Right Chemistry

Is your favorite retailer selling toxic products?

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Don't be fooled. Even in this day and age, plenty of products on the market are harmful to your health.

Just in time for the holiday shopping season, a new report card has been released evaluating the United States’ largest retailers’ safer chemicals programs — providing detailed information for both consumers and investors on which retailers are leading and which are failing when it comes to managing toxic chemical risks.

"Who’s Minding the Store? — A Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic Chemicals" set out to evaluate the progress that has been made, challenges that remain and the ever-present need for transformational change in the marketplace to promote safer chemicals in products since the Mind the Store campaign was launched in 2013. 

This comes at a time when nation’s largest retailers are on the frontlines of consumer discontent with product safety and hazardous chemical ingredients.  

Our investigation found that some leading retailers such as Walmart, Target and CVS are making significant progress to move the market away from toxic chemicals, while other top retailers, most notably Amazon and Costco, remain serious laggards. Major U.S. retailers earned grades ranging from B for good progress to F for failing to develop even basic safer chemical policies. But with an average grade of D+, most retailers barely make the grade, indicating a significant need for improvement by chain stores to meet rising consumer demand for safer products.  

Retailers were graded on a scale of 0 to 130 points, and a corresponding letter grading scale was developed to match the points. The grades were based on publicly available information, and retailers were afforded the opportunity to review and comment on their draft scores, disclose additional information and make new policy commitments.

'Walmart is first, Amazon is worst' 

The report card has been getting considerable attention in both mainstream media and the business press. Bloomberg broke the story with this blistering headline: "Walmart is First, Amazon is Worst in New Ranking on Chemicals." The report has also been covered by numerous other outlets such as CNN, the Daily Mail and even Walmart’s home-state newspaper, the Democrat Gazette.  

Since the report release, thousands of people across the nation have signed petitions to the retailers, encouraging those that scored well to continue to improve and urging laggards to catch up. More recently, we placed a full-page ad (PDF) in the December issue of Chain Store Age Magazine, to bring our message directly to retail industry executives.  

Costly to our health and retailers’ bottom lines

The production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals in common household products not only is costly to our health, but the associated reputational risks, regulatory, legal and financial liabilities for retailers continue to grow.

A new peer-reviewed study found that exposure to just a handful of endocrine disrupting chemicals such as flame retardants, phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) cost the United States more than $340 billion in health costs annually. A recent United Nations report (PDF) found that over a recent three-year period, CVS Health, Costco, Walgreens, Target and Walmart paid a total of $138 million in fines for improper handling and disposal of products containing chemicals of concern.

Walmart, Target, CVS making progress

Of the 11 retailers evaluated, Walmart, Target and CVS Health received the highest grades and have developed the most robust safer chemical management programs during the past three years. Walmart earned a grade of B, scoring 78.5 out of 130 possible points, the highest scoring retailer evaluated. Target was also awarded a B grade, receiving 76.5 points. Both Target and Walmart have flagged over 2,000 chemicals for reduction, elimination and substitution.

The report card revealed for the first time significant improvements made to Target’s chemical policy over the past year. The company:

  1. Added cosmetics to the categories of products covered by its policy;
  2. Expanded the list of chemicals subject to its policy to include chemicals banned in cosmetics in the European Union and Canada;
  3. Significantly improved its evaluation of suppliers’ transparency practices, particularly a new method for evaluating fragrance ingredients against Target’s restricted substance list; and
  4. Added new criteria around disclosure of allergens in fragrance and nanomaterials.

CVS Health attained a grade of C based on a score of 53 points. The report card revealed for the first time that CVS Health has become the first pharmacy chain in the country to become a signatory to the Chemical Footprint Project. Additionally, CVS has pledged to publicly disclose its restricted list of chemicals in 2017.

Amazon, Costco remain serious laggards

Amazon, Costco and Albertsons all earned failing grades.

Amazon received the lowest grade of any retailer evaluated, accruing only 7.5 out of 130 possible points. Meanwhile, Amazon’s market share is rapidly growing and it soon will be the biggest retailer of apparel and electronics in the U.S. 

Costco received the second lowest grade of any retailer, receiving only 9.5 points. Costco was, surprisingly, the only major retailer that did not publicly report any progress in eliminating chemicals of high concern over the past three years. Albertsons received the third lowest grade of any retailer, with only 12.5 points. Kroger also scored poorly with a grade of D-, barely avoiding an F, receiving only 15.5 points.

Some retailers begin to make progress

Some retailers are beginning to develop safer chemical policies. Best Buy will be announcing a safer chemicals policy, Restricted Substance List (RSL) and Manufacturing Restricted Substance List (MRSL) in 2017. Best Buy deserves credit as the only retailer that is developing a MRSL, which requires avoidance of hazardous chemicals in the manufacture of products, which can drive harmful chemicals out of complex supply chains such as electronics. Best Buy earned a C- grade, receiving 41 points.  

Walgreens announced in late 2014 that it was developing a "Chemical Sustainability Program," for release in the spring of 2015, but then backtracked, saying it would be forthcoming in the "coming months." Nearly two years later, this program is still not public. Walgreens was issued a D grade, scoring 29.5 points.

Recommendations for retailers to 'mind the store'

Based on our careful evaluation, we developed three key sets of recommendations for retailers:

  1. Policy: Every major U.S. retailer should have a written safer chemical policy, with senior management staff, executive and board level engagement, that measures and publicly reports on continuous improvement toward reducing, eliminating and safely substituting toxic chemicals in products;
  2. Transparency: Every major U.S. retailer should embrace "radical transparency" to meet rising consumer demand for full public disclosure of product chemical ingredients, developing and disclosing written safer chemicals policies, and annually reporting on goals and metrics in implementing policies aimed at eliminating harmful chemicals and requiring informed substitution; and
  3. Safer-chemicals standards: Every major U.S. retailer should nurture, promote, require and vigorously defend from attack reputable third-party safer chemicals standards aimed at promoting safer products.

Conclusion

Some of the biggest retailers are taking positive action to better ensure the safety of the products they sell by restricting the use of toxic chemicals by their suppliers.  

However, the largest U.S. retailers demonstrate highly uneven progress across their ranks. Retailers cannot afford to wait for slow-paced government regulation to catch up with the backlog of thousands of chemicals that remain untested for safety or are already known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. Relying on self-policing by the chemical industry and product manufacturers will not satisfy the concerns of consumers, who increasingly are voting with their dollars.

Retailers must lead in promoting safer chemicals, safer products and healthy families.

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