- 1.PHASE-OUTs: Several retailers are phasing out the use of PFAS, ortho-phthalates, bisphenols, and other classes of chemicals of concern in products and packaging.
- 2.FOOD PACKAGING: For the first time, several major retailers publicly announced policies to restrict dangerous chemicals in food packaging, including PFAS and ortho-phthalates.
- 3.EXPANDED POLICY: Retailers continue to adopt and expand corporate safer chemicals policies to require and encourage the transition to safer alternatives.
- 4.MOST IMPROVED: During the past year, several retailers significantly improved the chemical safety of the products and packaging that they buy and sell.
- 5.RETAIL LAGGARDS: One-third of major retail chains still lack even basic public commitments regarding the chemical safety of their products and packaging.
1.PHASE-OUTs: Several retailers are phasing out the use of PFAS, ortho-phthalates, bisphenols, and other classes of chemicals of concern in products and packaging.
Retailers are joining the global trend to sidestep our broken governmental chemical safety system by phasing out structurally similar chemicals as a class, rather than laboring through a chemical-by-chemical assessment that can take decades to reach decisions. This approach is preferable to a response in which, as scientific evidence of hazards mounts for leading chemicals in a class, a company merely switches to using other chemicals in the same class. Those other chemicals often lack adequate safety data and may only be somewhat less dangerous, sharing the same hazard traits. This can lead to endless “regrettable substitution” in which the alternative chemicals in the same class end up raising similar concerns to those they replace.
PFAS – The ‘forever chemicals’ PFAS are a very large class of more than 4,700 chemicals with multiple carbon-fluorine bonds, the strongest in organic chemistry. They are widely used for their non-stick, grease-resistant, water-repellant, and stain-resistant properties. Many PFAS are extremely persistent, meaning they don’t readily break down in the environment. Scientists estimate some will likely persist in the environment for thousands of years. They’re also very mobile, meaning they can escape from products during manufacture, use, and disposal, and move far and wide through the air, groundwater, drinking water, and food supply. Some PFAS are very toxic in very small doses, while most have been poorly studied. Virtually all humans on the planet have been exposed to PFAS, which can build up in the human body and wildlife.
Symptomatic of our broken chemical safety system, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration have allowed some PFAS to be replaced by other PFAS, perpetuating the cycle of human exposure and environmental contamination.
Several retailers are rightly treating PFAS as a class and phasing out the entire group in major product or packaging categories. These include The Home Depot (in carpeting and rugs); Lowe’s (in carpeting and rugs); Ahold Delhaize (in private-label food packaging); and Staples (in disposable foodware, furniture, and textiles).
ortho-Phthalates – These hormone-disrupting chemicals are commonly used to soften polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic and synthetic rubber, to carry fragrance in personal care products, or in adhesives, sealants and printing inks. Human exposure is widespread due to the widespread use of phthalates in food contact materials, building materials, home furnishings, and personal care products. Some in the chemical industry advocate replacing some ortho-phthalates with other ortho-phthalates even though they share similar hazards or have not been adequately studied, especially for endocrine activity.
Retailers who are newly publicly requiring suppliers to phase out the entire class of ortho-phthalates include Ahold Delhaize (in private-label food packaging), and Lowe’s (in wall-to-wall carpeting). Sephora set a goal to reduce high priority chemicals by 50% over the next three years, which includes eight key ortho-phthalates. Other retailers, such as Panera Bread, have replaced vinyl gloves, which must be softened with phthalates or other plasticizer chemicals of concern, with safer alternatives such as polyethylene gloves that require no such chemical additives.
Bisphenols – The estrogen-mimicking chemical known as bisphenol A (or BPA) became notorious from its use in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups, and in the plastic lining of infant formula cans and baby food jars … until outraged moms demanded the market switch to safer alternatives. BPA has also been widely used in thermal receipt paper, exposing cashiers and consumers to the hormone-disrupting chemicals. Some in the chemical industry encouraged a switch to bisphenol S or bisphenol F, which are structurally similar, thus potentially raising similar or possibly greater concerns. These chemicals are still used in some can linings for food and beverages, receipt paper, and plastics.
Several retailers are now joining others in treating several bisphenols as a class by prohibiting their intentional use, including Ahold Delhaize (in private-label food packaging) Costco (in thermal receipt paper in Canada), Staples, and Whole Foods Market (in thermal receipt paper).
Other Chemical Classes – Retail chains are also specifying other classes of chemicals of high concern (CHCs) for replacement with safer alternatives, include organohalogen flame retardants (OFRs), alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), and the related subclass nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), formaldehyde-releasers, and parabens. These include Staples (restricting OFRs in furniture and textiles, NPEs in formulated products and textiles, formaldehyde releasers, and parabens in formulated products), Lowe’s (restricting OFRs in fiberglass insulation), Sephora (added numerous phthalates, parabens, and formaldehyde releasers to its list of High Priority Chemicals for brand-name suppliers), Dollar General (banning NPEs in beauty, personal care, and cleaning products) and Canadian Tire (brominated flame retardants have been prohibited in all products).
We applaud the move to a class-based approach while cautioning retailers that more work is needed to avoid regrettable substitution and ensure that the alternatives are truly benign by design. A recent example gives us pause. When paint strippers were reformulated to remove deadly methylene chloride and NMP, some were replaced with demonstrably safer alternatives. However, other replacement products contain other CHCs that score a Benchmark 1 on the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, which means they should be avoided. This is another symptom of our broken chemical safety system – government policy does not necessarily require truly safer alternatives.
2.FOOD PACKAGING: For the first time, several major retailers publicly announced policies to restrict dangerous chemicals in food packaging, including PFAS and ortho-phthalates.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows the use of about 5,000 industrial chemicals in food packaging and food processing equipment, but very few have been assessed for safety based on modern science. Some of these chemicals, such as PFAS and phthalates, can migrate from the packaging and processing equipment into our food supply, exposing consumers and food workers and polluting the environment.
Several retailers are breaking new ground to improve the safety of food packaging. Market leadership announced by Whole Foods Market, Ahold Delhaize, Trader Joe’s, Panera Bread, Albertsons, and Kroger will begin to close the gaps in the broken federal chemical safety system for food-contact materials.
- Whole Foods Market was the first North American grocery chain to publicly commit to remove PFAS from some food packaging, including take-out containers and deli/bakery paper.
- Trader Joe’s asked its vendors to avoid PFAS in packaging for its products.
- Ahold Delhaize will restrict chemicals of concern, including PFAS, ortho-phthalates, and bisphenols, in its private-label products, including food packaging.
- Rite Aid will expand its safer chemicals policy to include food and beverage products and will develop a list of chemicals to restrict in food contact materials in 2020.
- Albertsons has begun to make progress in reducing the use of PFAS in food packaging for certain prepared foods and bakery goods such as cake plates.
- Kroger announced a timeline for completing its phase-out of BPA in the lining of its private-label canned goods, saying it will be complete by the end of 2020.
- Panera Bread restricted bisphenols, phthalates, and some fluorinated chemicals in take-out packaging and replaced PVC (vinyl) in food service gloves, which may contain phthalates or other plasticizers, with a safer alternative, polyethylene, that does not contain any plasticizers. All PFAS use in baguette bags will reportedly be phased out by 2020.
Similar actions by other food retailers are expected to follow in the coming year.
3.EXPANDED POLICY: Retailers continue to adopt and expand corporate safer chemicals policies to require and encourage the transition to safer alternatives.
In the last year, sixteen retailers have adopted or substantially expanded corporate safer chemicals policies to promote safer chemistry in the packaging and products they sell.
New safer chemicals policies launched by retailers since last year’s report card include these:
- Ahold Delhaize launched a safer chemicals policy to restrict chemicals in its private-label products and packaging and participate in the Chemical Footprint Project in 2020.
- Dollar General launched a safer chemicals policy to ban eight toxic chemicals in private-label beauty and household cleaning products by December 2022.
- Lowe’s launched a safer chemicals policy and recently expanded it to ban PFAS in indoor residential carpets and rugs as well other chemicals of high concern in fiberglass insulation, paint, and wall-to-wall carpet.
- Sephora launched a safer chemicals policy that will apply its beyond restricted substance list (BRSL) to brand-name products.
- Staples launched a safer chemicals policy that addresses priority chemicals, such as PFAS, organohalogen flame retardants, bisphenols, and phthalates in textiles and other product categories.
During the past year, several retailers also expanded the reach of existing safer chemicals policies and/or demonstrated other new forms of leadership toward phasing out toxic chemicals:
- Amazon phased out methylene chloride and NMP from paint removal products and expanded its safer chemicals policy to the E.U.
- Bed Bath & Beyond will restrict a set of Priority Chemicals in private label baby personal care products.
- Canadian Tire phased out methylene chloride and NMP from paint strippers.
- CVS Health is phasing out two chemicals in private-label sunscreens by the end of 2019.
- Dollar Tree participated in Chemical Footprint Project survey in 2019.
- The Home Depot will ban new uses of PFAS in carpets and rugs by the end of 2019.
- Rite Aid will expand its safer chemicals policy to include food packaging in 2020 and is asking its suppliers of private-brand formulated products to participate in the Chemical Footprint Project.
- Target published guidance for suppliers to evaluate the safety of alternatives and avoid regrettable substitution and participated in the 2019 Chemical Footprint Project survey.
- Walgreens will disclose ingredients in all private-brand cleaners by the end of 2019.
- Walmart set a goal to remove toxic chemicals from apparel manufacturing by 2025.
- Whole Foods Market has restricted some PFAS chemicals in body care products and has banned some sunscreen chemicals and switched to phenol-free receipts.
4.MOST IMPROVED: During the past year, several retailers significantly improved the chemical safety of the products and packaging that they buy and sell.
Of the 43 major retail chains we evaluated, seven stood out as most improved since 2018:
- Ahold Delhaize – The fourth-largest U.S. retail grocer and largest on the East Coast, Ahold Delhaize USA owns such popular grocery brands as Food Lion, Giant Food, Hannaford, and Stop & Shop. The company recently adopted a comprehensive commitment to sustainable chemistry that will prohibit the intentional use of several classes of toxic chemicals, including PFAS, ortho-phthalates, and bisphenols, in its private-label products and packaging. This marks one of the first retail commitments to end the use of dangerous chemicals in food packaging, improving Ahold Delhaize’s grade from an F in 2018 to a C- in 2019.
- Bed Bath & Beyond – Along with its subsidiary BuyBuy BABY, the company expanded its safer chemicals policy to restrict priority chemicals in personal care, cleaning, and cosmetics products. Bed Bath & Beyond also committed to reformulating its private-label baby products to remove certain CHCs. The company will end the use of flame retardant chemicals in certain padded products and reduce the use in other products. All of these changes in the last year significantly improved Bed Bath & Beyond’s grade to a C+ in 2019, up from a D+ last year.
- Dollar General – In 2019, this leading discount retailer adopted its first safer chemicals policy which applies to its private-label home cleaning, beauty, and personal care products. The policy includes a list of eight chemicals it is banning by December 2022: formaldehyde, toluene, triclosan, nonylphenol ethoxylates, butylparaben, propylparaben, trichloroethylene, and triclocarban The company will also encourage national brand suppliers of products in these categories “to reduce or eliminate their use of the Chemicals in products sold to Dollar General.” Dollar General improved its grade from an F the last two years to a D in the 2019 Retailer Report Card, demonstrating a significant improvement.
- Lowe’s – Last year, Lowe’s also launched its first comprehensive safer chemicals policy, which pledges a systematic approach to disclosure of chemical use and reduction or elimination of chemicals of concern, with annual public reporting on its progress. In November 2019, Lowe’s expanded the policy to restrict PFAS in carpets and rugs, as well as other chemicals of high concern in flooring, insulation, and paints. Lowe’s improved its grade from a D+ last year to a B- in the 2019 Retailer Report Card, demonstrating continuous improvement from its first grade of D in 2016.
- Panera Bread – This market leader in fast-casual food service has restricted the use of dozens of toxic chemicals in its food packaging, including phthalates and bisphenols, and has begun to phase out all use of PFAS in grease-resistant coatings, starting with baguette bags. This year, for its food handling gloves, Panera replaced PVC (vinyl) plastic, which is full of chemical additives and has a highly toxic lifecycle, with a safer alternative, polyethylene plastic.
- Sephora – In 2019, this leading retailer of cosmetics launched its first safer chemicals policy and expanded its restrictions on the use of certain chemicals, beyond those legally mandated, to branded products it sells. Building on its voluntary Clean at Sephora program, the company has set a goal to reduce CHCs in brand-name formulated products by 50% over the next three years and to report on progress. Sephora earned a B+ in 2019, demonstrating steady improvement from its C grade in 2018 and its D from 2017.
- Staples – In 2019, this leading office supply retailer adopted its first public-facing safer chemicals policy. The company named a list of priority CHCs that it will ask suppliers to reduce. Demonstrating leadership among its competitors, Staples explicitly called out concern about endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Staples improved its grade to C from a D+ earned in 2018.
5.RETAIL LAGGARDS: One-third of major retail chains still lack even basic public commitments regarding the chemical safety of their products and packaging.
This fourth annual Retailer Report Card has marked some dramatic progress in the retail sector in the last several years toward safer chemicals in products and packaging.
The average grade earned by all forty-three retailers was a C-, a slight gain from last year’s D+ average. Overall, 63% of evaluated companies improved over the past year alone. The eleven retailers who have been graded every year for the last four years dramatically improved their average grade from a D+ in 2016 to a B- this year.
Despite this good news, some major retailers continue to fail to adequately address the growing scientific concern about exposure to toxic chemicals that can affect their customers’ concerns, health, and well-being.
Fourteen retailers, more than 30% of the forty-three we evaluated, earned an F for failure to adopt even basic public safer chemicals policies or safer chemicals practices. This is still an overall improvement from 2018 when nineteen retailers, nearly half of those evaluated, scored an F grade.
Sally Beauty and TJX Companies lag behind the other evaluated retailers, having failed to score a single point in three consecutive years! Six other retailers failed to score a single point in the last two years. The full 2019 retailer report card Toxic Hall of Shame includes:
- 99 Cents Only (F)
- Ace Hardware (F)
- McDonald’s (F)
- Metro (F)
- Nordstrom (F)
- Publix (F)
- Restaurant Brands International (F) (includes Burger King, Tim Hortons, Popeyes)
- Sally Beauty (F)
- Sobeys (F)
- Starbucks (F)
- Subway (F)
- TJX Companies (F) (includes TJ Maxx, Marshalls, HomeSense, Sierra)
- Ulta (F)
- Yum! Brands (F) (includes Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, WingStreet)
Fortunately, when it comes to public safer chemical policies and practices, there are numerous other evaluated brands that scored substantially higher in nearly every retail sector occupied by these laggards.
The worst performing evaluated retail sector, which lags behind others in public chemical safety policies and practices, was restaurants, with an F grade average for the six evaluated retailers.