4 steps for companies on the path to chemical safety

4 steps for companies on the path to chemical safety

On the road to safer chemicals, it's important to have a vision and goals, but while it may be easy to set your destination, the biggest challenge can be how to start your journey.

To give a boost to companies just starting to think about chemicals -- as well as those already on their way -- BizNGO has released "The Guide to Safer Chemicals," a detailed look of all the steps companies can take, along with examples of what's already in practice.

"Chemicals remains a really miniscule element in most companies' sustainability initiatives," said Mark Rossi, lead author of the report and co-chair of BizNGO, a collaboration of mainly businesses and environmental organizations. "That said, when you start to get into the details, there is actually quite a bit of work that's going on among a lot of different companies."

In 2008, BizNGO created its Principles for Safer Chemicals, which detailed the four main areas it would work on:

1. Know and disclose chemicals.

2. Assess and avoid hazards.

3. Commit to continuous improvement.

4. Support public policy and industry standards.

Since then, Rossi said, a couple dozen business and environmental groups have also endorsed the principles. "But one of the questions that was always put to me is, 'What does it mean to implement these principles?'" he said.

The new guide is that next step. "It is based on the very best business practices among downstream user companies across all sectors," Rossi said.

In the guide, each principle is divided into four levels using the metaphor of climbing a mountain. The trailhead for disclosure, for example, is disclosing the presence or absence of some chemicals of high concern, while at the summit is disclosing all chemicals that are used in the supply chain and involved in feedstock sources.

Rossi noted that there are a couple key points for companies that are just now looking at chemicals to consider:

1. Start with the worst chemicals and redesign at the right stage.

"Every company that I've seen start on this path starts with some chemicals of high concern in their products," Rossi said. That category includes PVC, phthalates, brominated flame retardants, bisphenol A -- as well as other chemicals that are toxic, build up in the environment and are linked to a host of health issues.

Along with identifying such chemicals, companies need to design them out at the very first stages of product design.

2. You need a system for getting chemicals work done.

There are several methods used by companies. HP assesses chemicals using GreenScreen, Construction Specialties looks for the Cradle to Cradle Certified seal, and many in the apparel sector use the Bluesign standards.

"You need something that's systematic, replicable and saleable," Rossi said. Some companies build their own systems using tools that already exist, or they look to third-party certification.

Abstract science image provided by Andrii Muzyka /Shutterstock

As for companies that already have the basic steps down, there is plenty of other work they can do.

1. Include more products and dive deeper.

"At the summit level, you're getting the scaling across products as well as across life cycles," Rossi said.

Companies typically don't jump right in and assess all of their products at the same time. They start with a few, whether it be with their newest, most popular or most chemical-intensive products. Companies that have already done that should keep going, and take their assessments to more and more of their products.

And after companies have looked at the chemicals in their product lines, they can expand to look at what chemicals are being used in their supply chains, and trace them all the way to what chemicals and processes are used in their supply feedstocks.

For footwear companies, that can mean looking at what is done in textile factories or how their leather is being sourced, while for Seventh Generation, that means investigating what chemicals are used at plants that process the coconut and palm kernel oils that are used to make ingredients in its cleaners.

2. Bring it all together.

High-level companies, Rossi said, need to combine their systems with capacity and will, taking the means to implement changes and reinforcing that with technical resources and financing as well as organizational policies to enable improvements.

As the report show, some companies are already further up the path than others, showing others what is possible.

HP now tell its suppliers that it wants to see products that have GreenScreen ratings, and that it prefers products rated green or yellow -- not those that have lower ratings of orange and red.

"Now you have a clear communication to your supplier of what is being asked for, what you don't want and what you want," Rossi said.

He added that at a recent GreenScreen training, there were a few HP suppliers in attendance specifically because HP is asking for GreenScreen assessments of products.

And what that trickles down to is other electronics companies getting to see the GreenScreen ratings for those products as well, which makes the climb up to the summit just a little less rough.