Retailers remain on the frontlines of consumer discontent with product safety and hazardous chemicals in everyday household products and food packaging.
Out of the 43 retailers graded previously, nearly 70% were found to have improved since their first score in the retailer report card. And nearly two-thirds of retailers (64%) reported notable progress in reducing toxic chemicals or plastics or improving their chemical policies since 2019.
However, far too many U.S. and Canadian retailers have failed to demonstrate meaningful progress on chemical safety, with 12 out of the 50 retailers evaluated in this report card receiving failing grades.
Retailers may face substantial financial and regulatory risks that can be associated with toxic chemicals. Retailer reputation and customer loyalty are also in jeopardy. Relying on the chemical industry and product manufacturers to self-police themselves will not satisfy the concerns of millions of consumers who are voting with their dollars and demanding greater transparency, safer products and justice for Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color who are disproportionately impacted by toxic pollution.
Retailers should leapfrog federal government regulation and harmonize their efforts with the states that are leading on this issue. Unfortunately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and other agencies are failing to safeguard public health by allowing thousands of dangerous chemicals on the market. Fortunately, proactive states are stepping up to create protections. Retailers should align with them to meet consumer demands.
It is time for retailers to recognize the clear link between toxic chemicals, oil and gas, plastic pollution, and our climate crisis. Taking action on toxic chemicals is central to solving the problems we face with the continued use of fossil fuels to make chemically intensive products, plastics, and packaging. At the same time, the rush to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost to create a “circular economy” will be an utter failure if it remains a toxic economy. It is time for retailers to recognize these connections and take bolder actions.
Recommendations for Retailers
Based on our findings, we recommend that every major retailer in the United States and Canada:
- Policy: Adopt and publish a bold safer chemicals policy that shows a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and addressing disproportionate impacts. This policy should have senior management-level engagement and accountability for suppliers, and measure and publicly report on continuous improvement toward reducing, eliminating and safely substituting hazardous chemicals and toxic plastics in products, packaging, and global supply chains.
- Goals and Metrics: Set clear, ambitious public goals with timelines and quantifiable metrics to measure success in eliminating individual chemicals and classes of chemicals of high concern as well as plastics of environmental health concern, and in reducing retailers’ chemical footprint.
- Transparency: Embrace “radical transparency” to meet rising consumer demand for the full public disclosure of: chemical ingredients in products and packaging including fragrance and other generic ingredients; safer chemicals policies; and both progress and challenges in eliminating harmful chemicals and plastics.
- Avoid regrettable substitution: Invest in assessing safer alternatives using tools like GreenScreen, ChemFORWARD, and Scivera to ensure informed substitution. Retailers should also evaluate and track progress by participating in the annual Chemical Footprint Project survey.
- Stay ahead of and support government regulation: As toxic chemical policies continue to gain traction in more states and get greater attention from the Biden Administration, retailers must act. Retailers can mitigate regulatory risks and get ahead of the curve by adopting and implementing ambitious safer chemicals policies. Retailers should also support state and federal policy reform to advance ingredient transparency, eliminate toxic chemicals, and incentivize the development of green chemistry solutions.
- Foresight: Anticipate being graded in the future on progress made on chemical safety in products and packaging sold at retail, whether or not your company was included in the fifth annual Who’s Minding the Store? retailer report card.
Recommendations for Governments
Governments at all levels must also act. To level the playing field and incentivize further progress, state and federal governments must comprehensively address hazardous chemicals. Governments must:
- Protect the most vulnerable and address disproportionate impacts by enacting bold policies based on prevention and precaution that drive the use of safer chemicals and materials in products and packaging and in their manufacturing.
- Restrict classes of chemicals and plastics that are the most hazardous and difficult to manage. Chemicals such as PFAS that are highly persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic, or chemicals such as ortho-phthalates that are toxic and pervasive should be phased out. These chemicals pose serious health threats and can be costly for taxpayers and governments to clean up. Plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polycarbonate (PC), and polystyrene (PS) that are inherently toxic should be banned.
- Require product ingredient transparency and disclose data consistent with laws such as those established in the states of California, Maine, New York, Oregon, Washington state, and Vermont. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should not allow toxic ingredients or health and safety data to be designated as confidential business information. This data is critically needed by governments, companies, and consumers to make decisions about chemical use in products.
- Use hazard-based approaches and tools in decision-making. It is clear that the single-chemical risk assessment approach is failing and doesn’t adequately protect consumers, communities, and workers from dangerous chemicals. Increased investment in and use of innovative hazard-based tools, such as GreenScreen and ChemFORWARD, which are increasingly used by leading companies, certifications, and/or governments, will allow for better, more efficient decision-making and reduce the use of harmful chemicals and the costs of cleaning up pollution. The EPA should scale up its Safer Choice program to help create incentives for the purchase and development of safer products.
- Governments should prioritize products with safer chemistry in their own purchasing. Governments often purchase from major retailers and should align their purchasing contracts to further incentivize movement toward safer products.