5 lessons on how to tackle toxics from DuPont, 3M and H&M

5 lessons on how to tackle toxics from DuPont, 3M and H&M

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It’s a company’s worst nightmare: Studies begin to reveal that a high-performing product may be linked to human health issues. The media swarms. Consumers demand action. You’ve not only got to find a safe alternative quickly, but also manage that transition across a global supply chain.

From supplier to manufacturer to retailer, every company involved in the production and sale of a toxic product needs to work together for alternatives to work. And it’s never a simple switch.

Fortunately, it has been done before and done well. The best example in recent history is the global shift away from the use of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) -- the stuff typically used to make everything from fabric to countertops water- or stain-resistant. Since 2003, when PFC toxicity first came to light, chemical suppliers, product manufacturers and retailers have been working to replace PFCs -- particularly one type, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used to make Teflon and associated with various types of cancer -- with safer alternatives. Their journey holds a few key lessons for all companies seeking to eliminate toxics from their supply chain.

Lesson #1: Don’t wait for the media pile-on

Results from several research studies conducted on PFCs in the late 1990s began to roll in during late 2002 and early 2003, each pointing to the same conclusion: PFCs cause developmental and reproductive toxicity. PFOA was deemed carcinogenic by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which found conclusive evidence linking exposure to liver, pancreatic, testicular and breast cancers.

DuPont initially fought against the push away from PFOA, insisting that it was perfectly safe at the levels in which humans were being exposed, despite the fact that it was found to be present at low levels in the bloodstream of nearly every person on Earth. That resistance earned it a string of media articles, particularly around Teflon cookware and bakeware -- and a class-action lawsuit.

In 2005, after agreeing to pay more than $100 million to settle a suit brought by workers and local residents at its West Virginia Washington Works plant, DuPont’s tune changed. The company helped convene an independent scientific panel to evaluate links between PFOA and various diseases. The first two reports from that panel have determined a probable link between PFOA exposure and preeclampsia (hypertension in pregnant women), as well as kidney and testicular cancers. Several other reports are due out by the end of this year.

In 2006, the eight companies producing the highest volumes of PFOA, including DuPont, were ready to commit to a 95 percent reduction of usage and emissions (based on year 2000 levels) by 2010, along with a complete phase-out no later than 2015. But by then, the largest producers in the group -- 3M and DuPont -- were under particular scrutiny. 3M stopped producing PFOA entirely by the end of 2008. DuPont met the 95 percent reduction goal and is on track to eliminate PFOA from its products entirely by 2015.

Photo of toxic-poinson blocks provided by Curioso via Shutterstock

Swedish retailer H&M announced last month its intention to eliminate the use of materials containing perfluorinated compounds (PFC) -- the stuff typically used to make materials water- or stain-resistant -- by January 2013. H&M is better known for trendy, throwaway fashion than for sustainability, but it has recently been making big strides toward eliminating toxics from its supply chain. In years past it has eliminated Azo dyes, short-chained chloroparaffins, chromium VI and phenols from its supply chain. It's currently the world’s largest purchaser of organic cotton.

According to Malin Bjorne, a spokesperson for the company, H&M only sells a few water-resistant items, but ensuring that those few items are made without PFCs was deemed important to the brand. With 26,000 stores spread across 44 countries, H&M’s pledge is significant, even if it only applies to a handful of products. When a retailer with such a broad reach makes such a decision, it sends a message to suppliers.

“The biggest lesson we learned in moving away from PFCs is that you need to not only find and build a relationship with a chemical supplier who’s willing to be really involved with the project, but also ensure that you connect that supplier with your fabric mill, and that both are clear on your purpose,” Bjorne says.

Lesson #3: Understand the business case for safer chemicals

The shift away from PFOA isn’t just about saving face in the media or assuaging consumer concerns. It makes good business sense, even without all the evidence of PFOA’s impact on human health.

Dave Boothe, global business director for DuPont, who led the company’s efforts to transition away from PFOA, said the chemical manufacturer had been looking into alternatives to PFOA for years because it is a costly polymerization aid -- not for health reasons.

“We had been looking at finding a different polymerization aide to replace PFOA for over 30 years for economic reasons,” Boothe said. “It had proved to be very difficult but as this issue came forward that added urgency.”

Lesson #4: Make a public commitment and be transparent about progress

“When we made the decision to publicly announce a commitment to phase out PFOA, we had had some breakthroughs in the science, in terms of looking for an alternative, but we weren’t completely sure it would work,” Boothe continued. “Ultimately what we had been working on did turn out to be the solution, but there was a bit of doing it on faith when we started.”

DuPont used PFOA as a polymerization aide to create fluoropolymers (materials like Teflon), and was creating trace amounts of PFOA as a byproduct of the chemical process used to make fluorotelomers (typically used to make materials stain- or water-resistant -- coatings for kitchen countertops, for example). It has since come out with a new process for making fluorotelomers that eliminates PFOA and uses short-chain carbon compounds that don’t persist in the environment.

The company has also developed a proprietary polymerization aid. Boothe declined to speak in great depth about this development. “[It has] a more favorable toxicological profile, including rapid bioelimination, combined with unique environmental exposure control technologies that reduce the potential for environmental release and exposure,” he said.

DuPont has a site dedicated to tracking its progress on PFOA and files regular update reports with the EPA. Because of the consumer concern around cookware and bakeware, those were the first products to be rid of the chemical.

“A lot of the media reports about PFOA were centered around those products because who doesn’t have one of these items in their cupboard?” Boothe said. “We gave finding an alternative for those products high priority because that’s where a lot of questions were coming from.”

As of early 2012 the material used to make non-stick pans has been completely converted to eliminate PFOA.

Lesson #5: Get buy-in from your customers

The buy-in process has been slow -- not just because DuPont had to find alternatives that delivered the same performance, but because the company’s new materials had to meet the approval of customers and procurement offices throughout the world. According to Boothe, the company has spent close to ten years and $500 million to make the move away from PFOA.

There’s also the issue of regulatory compliance, which quickly gets complex for a company like DuPont that is selling into most countries in the world. “You have to get regulatory approval for each application of a new material in every country that it’s used,” Boothe said. “So you’ve got everything from the specific compliance required for a material that’s coming into contact with food to just generally being able to make and sell a product under TSCA [the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act] in every country where you sell a product.”

Boothe said the company also had to generate a substantial amount of data and conduct a number of tests on its alternatives to prove their safety and environmental impact for the EPA.

“There’s a substantial R&D and capital cost to do these conversions and this one has been very complex,” Boothe said. “It’s not just about our products, but our customers’ products. Some of these materials are used in military applications and in the automotive and aerospace industries, where there are really long conversion times or qualifications that it can take years to go through. A conversion like this costs money from our customers too -- this has touched 13,000 customers worldwide and they have invested along with us.”