How leaders from Apple to ZDHC are opening up on chemicals

The Right Chemistry

How leaders from Apple to ZDHC are opening up on chemicals

Top image of magnifying glass by anaken2012 via Shutterstock

What chemicals are in the products you sell? It should be the simplest of questions, but all too often, it's incredibly difficult for companies to obtain information about the chemicals in their products, let alone in their packaging and supply chains.

The fact that chemicals are the foundation of every product — from beauty and personal care products to cell phones and couches — presents significant management challenges for the vast majority of businesses that do not know the chemicals in their products or supply chains, do not understand the hazards of those chemicals and do not know the availability of safer alternatives.

But ignorance or the response that "it meets all regulations" is no longer tenable, and presents very real business risks. Regulatory compliance to chemicals in products and supply chains is merely baseline performance. Increasingly, brands and retailers are the ones whose reputations are at risk when toxic chemicals are found in their products and in their stores.

Increasing demands for transparency

The market and regulatory momentum is clearly moving toward knowing chemicals in products and supply chains, and disclosing those chemicals publicly. Let's review the state of affairs in different sectors.

In retail, Target, Walmart and Whole Foods Market make transparency a core element of their chemical policies for beauty and personal care products (a good thing, as consumers and advocacy organizations want full ingredient disclosure, including fragrances, on packaging) and consumer packaged goods.

Health care giants Dignity Health and Kaiser Permanente — plus group purchasing organizations (GPOs) and many other health care organizations — are demanding that suppliers report on a wide range of toxic chemicals in products, including flame retardants.

 BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals, developed from article by Christopher Meyer and Julia Kirby, Leadership in the Age of Transparency, Harvard Business Review, April 2010California soon will require all companies selling upholstered residential furniture to state on label whether the product contains flame retardants.

The U.S. Green Building Council embeds chemical disclosure in its new building standard, LEED v4, and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative develops a form to facilitate disclosure of chemicals in building products.

In the energy sector, fracking fluid manufacturer Baker Hughes agrees to publicly disclose 100 percent of the chemical ingredients in its hydrofracking fluids.

 BizNGO Guide to Safer ChemicalsElectronics leader Apple announced in August that it will eliminate certain chemicals of high concern — including benzene, n-hexane and trichloroethylene — from its manufacturing facilities.

The Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals initiative of leading apparel and footwear brands (think Adidas, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike and others) establishes knowing chemicals of high concern in manufacturing and their elimination by 2020 as core goals.

Catalyzed by leading green brands such as Seventh Generation and Method, chemical ingredient disclosure on cleaning product packaging, beyond regulatory requirements, is now a core level of performance in the industry.

These initiatives depict a range of actions of "knowing" and "disclosing" chemicals in products and supply chains.

Know your chemicals

Knowing chemicals in products and supply chains is the B2B sharing of chemical ingredient information, completed behind closed doors and out of public light. The BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals defines a series of steps that companies take on the path to knowing all the chemicals in products, packaging and supply chains. After all, how can an organization move beyond the whack-a-mole strategy of chemical management if it does not know the chemicals in its products or supply chains?

In starting on the path to safer chemicals, most companies and initiatives begin with knowing some chemicals of high concern. ZDHC is such an initiative, although unique in that it starts with process chemicals used by suppliers. Asking suppliers whether they use or their products contain specific chemicals of high concern is an easier ask, at least initially, than asking for disclosure of all chemicals. Suppliers are more willing to say, "My product does not contain Bisphenol A," (or any other chemical) than to provide full ingredient disclosure.

Yet this strategy has its limitations. New chemicals of high concern constantly emerge, which requires you to constantly return to suppliers and ask what about toxic flame retardants? Toxic plasticizers? BPA? DEHP? PVC?

 BizNGO Guide to Safer ChemicalsTo get ahead of the emerging science trend, hard drive manufacturer Seagate Technology requires its suppliers to disclose all the ingredients in their products. Now when a new chemical of high concern emerges, Seagate merely searches its database and does not need to call every supplier to ask, "Do you have toxic flame retardant X in your product?" In the building products sector, the Health Product Declaration form provides a means for complete disclosure of all chemicals in products, as does the International Material Data System in the automotive sector.

Disclose your chemicals

Disclosing chemicals is the public disclosure of chemicals in products, packaging and/or supply chains. Transparency is essential to customer confidence in brands, clear communication to customers, informed decisions and innovation for safer alternatives. The market works best when the most people have access to the most information, and when business leaders can make fully informed choices. Then they can choose the safest chemicals and create the best products.

A typical starting point for disclosure is the absence of a chemical of high concern in a product, for example: "BPA-free," "PVC-free" or "flame retardant-free." But this reveals nothing about what alternatives are selected and whether those alternatives are indeed safer.

Full transparency is clearly the direction the market is headed. The open flow of information is crucial for building customer trust in an age when consumers are demanding to know what's in the products they buy.

Companies also realize that if they do not provide information about product chemistry, their customers will seek the information out from other sources, such as the Skin Deep database or Good Guide. Transparency is key not only for building confidence in your products, but also for fostering innovation.

Asking for detailed information about ingredients in products should be standard procedure for all companies selling or using products made with chemicals. For those selling products to consumers, the next step is transparency to make information about product chemistry available and accessible to the public. This is what consumers have come to expect, and what leading brands already offer.

The most successful companies are developing and implementing systems for collecting and disclosing chemical ingredient information, evaluating the hazards of those chemicals and selecting safer alternatives.

Top image of magnifying glass by anaken2012 via Shutterstock.