5 Essential Practices for Retailers, Brand Owners and Suppliers to Transition to Safer Chemicals

3p_photo_mallBy Beverley Thorpe

Manufacturers, retailers and suppliers are increasingly being mandated or asked voluntarily to eliminate hazardous chemicals of concern in their products and manufacturing processes.

This is good news. Unfortunately, the alternatives they choose as replacements may not be comprehensively screened for human health and environmental impact. This leads to ‘regrettable substitution,’ a term I find captivating in its understatement, particularly when the substitute ends up being persistent in the environment or a hormone disrupting chemical. Part of the problem is that chosen alternatives are often kept confidential which diminishes the public’s faith that progress to safer chemicals is actually being made.

NGO campaigns have recognized the need to go beyond calls for a simple chemical ban in products. Too often we see hazardous flame retardants in furniture or waterproof coatings on outdoor hiking gear being substituted with similarly hazardous halogenated chemicals. So, how can product manufacturers and retailers protect themselves from the business risk of potentially adopting the next hazardous chemical to be regulated? And how can they show leadership in helping to move our economy to a toxic-free future?

These ‘Five Essential Practices for Retailers, Brand Owners and Suppliers’ were developed by the Workgroup for Safe Markets to give clear signals to the marketplace that increased public disclosure of chemical information and the phase-out of hazardous chemicals using ‘informed substitution’ will increasingly define company leaders.

Chemical Assessment Tools, lists of chemical groupings to avoid and examples of best practices are now available to help companies adopt informed substitution practices. Regulatory mandates for increased disclosure, such as Washington state’s Children’s Safe Products Act, as well as voluntary initiatives, such as LEED’s new credits for material disclosure and chemical screening, will continue to build the drum beat for more chemical information disclosure. NGOs are entering into detailed dialogue with companies and retailers offering resources and expertise. We believe the following will increasingly define advocacy, regulatory and voluntary requests in the marketplace.

“Radical Transparency was one of the guiding principles in creating Seventh Generation. There are several forms of transparency a company may engage in. For example, a business that isn’t already required to may willingly disclose its product ingredients, or it may disclose the sources and the means of obtaining the raw materials.” – Jeffrey Hollander, Seventh Generation

The Five Essential Practices for Retailers, Brand Owners and Suppliers

1. Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should establish a goal of reducing and eliminating the use of chemicals and materials of concern in products and manufacturing processes, and replacing them with alternatives that are transparently safer. Their publicly available chemicals management plans should include metrics and clear timeframes to measure continual progress towards this goal. As a priority, the Working Group suggests that retailers and brand owners identify relevant chemicals of high concern in products and supply chains, volume of those chemicals, and set goals for reducing both the number and volume of these chemicals.

2. Retailers and brand owners should know and publicly disclose the chemical ingredients in their products, product packaging and manufacturing processes. They can do this by requiring their suppliers to give full chemical disclosure including of fragrances, additives, contaminants, raw materials, colorants, flavorings and chemical by-products, and they should make this information publicly available online and/or on product packaging. A good first step is to disclose all chemicals of high concern in products including those under proprietary agreements.

3. Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should identify chemicals and materials in their products and/or supply chains for chemicals of concern for substitution with safer alternatives that have undergone comprehensive hazard screening. The hazard profile of a chemical can be determined using comprehensive human health and environmental endpoints and all data gaps for chemical information will be clearly stated.

4. Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should conduct or require alternatives assessment for chemicals of concern as set out in the Business-NGO Principles of Alternatives Assessment. Alternatives include a wide range of options ranging from simple elimination to informed substitution for safer chemical, material and non-chemical alternatives.

5. Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should commit to continuous improvement in eliminating all chemicals and materials of concern in their supply chains, and support innovation and public policies that promote green chemistry, sustainable product design, as well as manufacturing processes that protect human health and the environment. Retailers, brand owners and suppliers should publicly report on their progress in transitioning to safer chemicals and materials on their websites and in their shareholder reports.

These ‘Five Essential Practices’ were developed jointly by partners in the Workgroup for Safe Markets, including: Breast Cancer Fund, Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health, Clean and Healthy New York, Clean Production Action, Commonweal, Healthy Building Network, International Campaign for Responsible Technology, Learning Disabilities Association of Maine, Natural Resources Defense Council, Safe Minds, Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, and Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Image credit: Flickr/jpellgen

Beverley Thorpe is a Consulting Co-Director at Clean Production Action, a non profit that works with NGOs, businesses and governments to design and deliver strategic solutions for green chemicals and sustainable products. She is also the co-coordinator of the Workgroup for Safe Chemicals, a US based collaboration of groups working to shift the market to safer chemicals use.

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