Target, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods lead retail race to safer chemicals

Target, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods lead retail race to safer chemicals

Cleaning products_FikMik_Shutterstock

Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market are leading retailers in the race to provide safer chemicals in products. With their newly announced chemical policies, Target and Wal-Mart [PDF] have joined Whole Foods Market in moving well beyond regulations to reduce the chemical footprints of household cleaning and personal care products sold in their stores.

Significantly, these initiatives are driving manufacturers of direct-exposure chemical products -- starting with cosmetics, personal care and household cleaning products -- to:

Know more about the chemicals in their products and supply chains.

Be more transparent with the public about the chemicals in their products.

Avoid chemicals of high concern and shift to inherently safer chemicals.

Commit to continuous improvement toward greener chemistry in their products.

All three companies are on the right path -- but just how far along are they? Each company has its own unique take on how to implement a program to reduce the chemical footprint of products sold in its stores. At Clean Production Action, we've been examining the effectiveness of cleaner-chemical initiatives. Here is our initial assessment of the chemical policies of these leading retailers -- how far they go, the questions they raise and what we hope to see next.

Retailers think big

Target's Sustainable Product Standard establishes a product scoring system for household cleaning, personal care, beauty and baby care products (with cosmetics to be added in 2014). These product categories will be scored on five attributes: ingredients (50 points), transparency (20 points), animal testing (5 points), packaging (20 points) and water quality (5 points). The scoring system does not set requirements for suppliers. Instead, Target, in its words, will "learn with our vendors how to improve our entire selection of products."

Target's first step is sensible and a significant task: to understand its current chemical footprint, including the extent to which more than 1,000 chemicals of high concern are present in certain product categories sold in its stores. Yet key implementation questions remain, including: How many of the 1,000-plus chemicals are relevant to the product categories targeted, how will suppliers respond, how will trade-secret ingredient claims be addressed and how will Target use the scores to select and de-select products? 

Wal-Mart's Policy on Sustainable Chemistry in Consumables sets criteria for household cleaning, personal care, beauty and cosmetic products to meet. It has two pathways: 1) for Wal-Mart private-brand cleaning products and 2) for suppliers. For private-brand cleaning products, Wal-Mart will begin "to the extent possible" in 2014 to meet the criteria of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment (DfE) Label. For suppliers, Wal-Mart's goals are to increase transparency ("require suppliers to provide online public ingredient disclosure"); reduce or eliminate roughly 10 priority chemicals in household cleaning, personal care, beauty and cosmetic products; and publicly report on progress toward these goals in 2016.

Implementation questions on the Wal-Mart policy include: What are the 10 priority chemicals, what percent of private-brand cleaning products will meet US EPA DfE criteria, how will public ingredient disclosure by suppliers address trade-secret claims on chemical classes such as fragrances, and will Wal-Mart move beyond the initial 10 priority chemicals to other chemicals of high concern to human health and the environment?

Whole Foods Market's Eco-Scale Rating System for household cleaning products is more like a tiered eco-label. The Eco-Scale Rating defines four tiers of criteria -- red, orange, yellow and green -- applied to labeling household cleaning products stocked on its shelves. "Red" means that the product fails to meet the "orange" criteria and cannot be sold in the store. The "orange" (baseline) criteria include the requirements of: 1) "full disclosure of ingredients on packaging" and 2) ingredient hazards must have "no significant environmental or safety concerns." Whole Foods Market defines full disclosure as requiring that all intentionally added ingredients must be listed on all products.

How Whole Foods deals with concerns about full-ingredient disclosure, including trade secret ingredients, and how it defines "no significant environmental or safety concerns" and "no moderate environmental or safety concerns" (a criterion among the "yellow" and "green" criteria) is unclear. Whole Foods also has an innovative program for personal care products, the Premium Body Care Standards. 

Tracking progress on the path to safer chemicals

So how do the Target, Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market initiatives compare to one another?

The Guide to Safer Chemicals provides a comprehensive, transparent and publicly available framework for benchmarking corporate initiatives for safer chemicals. The guide uses a hiking metaphor of four benchmarks (Trailhead, Base Camp, High Camp and Summit) for tracking progress toward: knowing chemicals in products and supply chains, disclosing those chemicals to the public, assessing and avoiding chemical hazards, continuous improvement and supporting policy initiatives. The benchmarks start from beyond regulatory compliance and increase in complexity and difficulty as they move toward the Summit, which only a very few companies have reached.

Whole Foods Market's Eco-Scale Rating System's green criteria, while limited to a single category of products (household cleaners), comes the closest to Summit in categories laid out in The Guide to Safer Chemicals: Know (Summit); Disclose to Public (almost Summit); Assess & Avoid Hazards (almost Summit); and Continuous Improvement (almost High Camp). However, the percentage of household cleaning products sold at Whole Foods that meet the green criteria is unclear.

Wal-Mart's adoption of the US EPA's Design for Environment Label is the next most ambitious initiative, in that the DfE Label is already a well-developed program with clear criteria for chemicals of concern and safer chemicals. The DfE Label reaches these benchmarks in The Guide to Safer Chemicals: Know (High Camp); Disclose to Public (Base Camp and on path to High Camp); and Assess & Avoid Hazards (almost Summit). Continuous improvement is not applicable to the DfE Label.

Like the Eco-Scale Rating System of Whole Foods Market, Wal-Mart will apply the DfE Label only to household cleaning products, and there is an open question of what percentage of private-label household cleaning products will meet the DfE Label criteria. Wal-Mart did not specify a goal of 100 percent DfE cleaners by any date.

Wal-Mart's initiative with its suppliers reaches these benchmarks in The Guide to Safer Chemicals: Know (High Camp); Disclose to Public (Base Camp and on path to High Camp); Assess & Avoid Hazards (Trailhead); and Continuous Improvement (reaching elements of Summit and High Camp by way of avoiding Base Camp, which would be endorsing the principles of BizNGO, a coalition of business and environmental leaders advancing safer chemicals and sustainable materials).

Many questions surround the Wal-Mart initiative, as noted above, including the extent of disclosure to the public and limited number of chemicals of high concern addressed.

Target's initiative, while broader than Wal-Mart's, at least initially doesn't reach many benchmarks because it is a scoring system with implementation still to be determined. For example, Target's "chemicals of high concern" list of more than 1,000 chemicals is far greater than Wal-Mart's undisclosed list of 10 chemicals -- but how and whether Target ensures the elimination of all 1,000-plus chemicals of high concern is still to be determined.

Target's Product Sustainability Standard reaches these benchmarks in The Guide to Safer Chemicals: Know (High Camp); Disclose to Public (Baseline, meets no benchmark, but suppliers receiving maximum points for "transparency" are at High Camp); Assess & Avoid Hazards (meets no benchmark, but suppliers receiving maximum points for "ingredients" would be at Base Camp); and Continuous Improvement (reaching elements of High Camp by way of avoiding Base Cam; endorses BizNGO Principles).

For a summary of the retailers' progress, see the table Retailers on the Path to Safer Chemical Summits.

Overall assessment

The policies of Wal-Mart, Target and Whole Foods Market are all on the trail to safer chemicals and heading in the right direction. They demonstrate how businesses can take leadership in the race to the top for safer chemicals, and they represent a significant and unprecedented step forward.

It's a long road ahead. For far too long, businesses have operated in a reactive environment, content to manage chemical risk by way of complying with regulations rather than being proactive by knowing and disclosing chemicals, assessing hazards and selecting safer alternatives. These retailer policies challenge the status quo and represent a huge shift in thinking in the marketplace: it's time for manufacturers to go up the trail to more knowledge and better standards for safer chemicals.

This is the beginning of the story, not the end. We will continue to track the policies of Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods Market and others, promote the best in-class initiatives and the resources that make them successful and publicly report what we find.

Household products photo by FikMik via Shutterstock