Many retailers have moved “beyond compliance” to reduce the use of chemicals and plastics of environmental health concern in their products and packaging. Five chemical policy elements stand out amidst the retail progress reported since late 2019.
- 1.METRICS MATTER: Measuring progress against quantitative goals and timelines
- 2.REACH HIGHER: Making continuous improvement against stretch goals
- 3.PLASTIC POLLUTES: Retailers are fighting plastic pollution and its toxic hazards
- 4.CHOOSE SAFELY: Avoiding regrettable substitutes through safer alternatives
- 5.SHARE MORE: Disclosing chemicals within supply chain and to consumers
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” – W. Edwards Deming
The strongest retail performers set quantitative goals and timelines for reducing the use of chemicals of concern in products and packaging and in the manufacturing supply chain. They publicly report on their progress. Here are some examples of retail leadership:
- Walmart reported a 5% reduction in the use of toxic chemicals (by weight) between 2017 and 2019. That eliminated 10 million pounds of hazardous chemicals from beauty, personal care, and household cleaning products, among others. The company also disclosed a 24% reduction in the number of products (by UPC barcode) containing priority chemicals.
- Sephora documented a 14% reduction in the total number of products it sells that contain one or more high-priority chemicals. By July 2020, 94% of Sephora’s products and 65% of the brands it sold online were free of high-priority chemicals on its restricted list.
- Rite Aid reported that it was 98% of the way toward meeting its 2020 chemical elimination commitment for its own-brand products by the end of November 2020. This represents progress since 2019 when 93% of products met the objective and from 2018, when only 88% complied. Their gains are more impressive considering that the number of its own-brand products has also increased in that timeframe.
“When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” – Zen koan
Adopting “stretch goals” improves retailer performance and motivates the entire retail sector to reach higher. Being first the first to market with innovative chemical policies and practices is one mark of leadership. Even struggling performers can leap ahead of the competition by setting their sights on bold, game-changing goals.
Retailers who helped set the pace since the last report card include the following:
- A CLASS ACT: Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Taco Bell all announced new commitments in 2020 to eliminate the entire class of PFAS, the ‘forever chemicals,’ in food packaging by specific deadlines. Whole Foods completed its transition away from PFAS in food service ware. In total, a dozen retailers have committed to reduce or eliminate PFAS from food packaging at more than 65,000 store locations.
- JUSTICE FOR ALL: Target and Rite Aid have pledged for the first time to address toxic ingredients in beauty products that are marketed to women of color, a potential contributor to environmental injustice measured by racial disparities in chemical exposure. Target stated that: “We continue to explore the unique challenges that certain beauty products present within our assortment, and in 2021 will be evaluating the overall effectiveness and rate of adoption of our chemicals policy goals and Target clean standard of multicultural beauty compared to the entire assortment.”
“Only we humans make waste that nature can’t digest.” – Charles J. Moore
Plastic pollution remains a growing concern, with the oil industry projecting a tripling of plastics production by 2050. But plastic pollution is more than just ocean waste that litters our beaches and chokes wildlife to death. Some plastics are made with or contain highly toxic chemicals that can adversely impact workers and frontline communities, consumers, and those who live near landfills and waste incinerators. Further, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics production and disposal, which are already significant, are projected to dramatically increase in the future.
Several retailers are beginning to show leadership in eliminating plastics of environmental health concern, which include polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl), polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC), polystyrene (PS), and expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), among others:
- Amazon and Whole Foods Market have prohibited the use of PVC, PS, and EPS in food packaging materials used for the Amazon Kitchen brand and Whole Foods Market Food Service and Exclusive Brand packaging, respectively.
- Best Buy phased out the use of PVC plastic from its gift cards in 2020.
- Target will work to eliminate the plastics PVC, PVDC, and PS from its own-brand packaging, along with carbon black, a color additive that impedes recycling.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” – Albert Einstein
“Regrettable substitution” remains the bane of safer chemicals policy. Countless examples illustrate the folly of replacing chemicals of concern with other substances that have been poorly tested or are based on similar chemistries that predictably pose similar hazards. The replacement of PFOA and PFOS with other members of the same class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) offers a perfect example.
Avoiding regrettable substitution requires foresight, intention, and strategy. Several retailers are going the extra distance to ensure that truly safe alternatives are developed and used in products, packaging, and supply chains. For example:
- Apple has worked with ToxServices to assess the hazards of alternatives to a flame retardant and a plasticizer and will share the results through ChemFORWARD.
- Sephora is working with ChemFORWARD to help increase access to information on the hazards of alternatives and with Novi Connect to use artificial intelligence to help identify safer alternatives.
- Target has made $3.7 million in grants toward its commitment to invest $5 million in green chemistry innovation by 2022.
- Walmart has committed new resources to work with the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) to promote safer alternatives.
“Truth never damages a cause that is just.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Disclosure of information on chemical use and hazards up and down the supply chain has been shown to improve chemical management and incent transitions to safer alternatives. Two forms of transparency are equally important.
Business-to-business (B2B) disclosure results when a supplier reports directly to a retailer on what chemicals and materials are used in the products and packaging they sell or, instead, discloses that same information to a contracted third-party that screens the data for identified chemicals of concern.
Public disclosure provides consumers with information on the label or online regarding the chemical ingredients of the product and packaging sold at retail.
- Apple has adopted a goal to “drive 100 percent transparency of chemical use in [its] supply chain and products,” a significant B2B disclosure commitment.
- Costco is working with Scivera to assess chemical hazards in its products to enable suppliers to prescreen chemical ingredients against the company’s Smart Screening Program list and to encourage identification of preferred safer alternatives to identified chemicals of concern.