By Judy Levin
Just a couple of months ago, I wrote in this space about shopping for safer furniture made without toxic flame retardant chemicals. For decades, virtually all upholstered furniture was made with these chemicals, but in the past few years advocacy work by health, environmental and consumer groups across the country exposed the fallacies of flame retardants and uncovered the science demonstrating that these chemicals don’t protect us in fires, but can cause cancer and other serious health problems.
When I last wrote about furniture shopping, I outlined the unscientific survey of the San Francisco Bay Area locations of three national retailers I visited to see how the companies were adapting to new California rules that call for labeling. At the time, Macy’s seemed to be far behind the market in making the change to safer furniture. In the visit to one Macy’s furniture store, I could not find a single item made without toxic flame retardants.
Our organization’s surveys earlier this year of major national furniture retailers have found dozens, including Ikea, Ashley and many others, that have committed to selling furniture made without toxic flame retardants. But while some companies took the lead, we heard no such commitment from Macy’s.
With the rest of the market moving rapidly to protect our children’s and families’ health, we believed that consumers deserved to know about Macy’s furniture. We joined with the national Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition’s Mind the Store campaign in planning to expose Macy’s with national demonstrations outside of its stores on Oct. 21.
But the demonstrations were replaced with a victory celebration. On Oct. 20, Macy’s told the campaign that it would immediately tell its furniture suppliers that it will only carry products made without toxic flame retardants.
There are three important takeaways from Macy’s commitment to safer products: First, it’s clear that the end is near for the use of flame retardants not only in furniture, but also in many other applications where the dangerous chemicals simply aren’t needed.
Second, Macy’s response indicated that, even though labeling on the use of flame retardants is required only in California, the company told our campaign that its products will be labeled nationwide. This is especially important to understand in the context of the current debate in Congress over proposed reforms to our nation’s broken system on protections from toxic chemicals.
Proponents in Congress of current proposals for a weak federal rule say that we need a single national standard to protect all Americans from toxic chemicals because state rules only protect the people in those states lucky enough to have stronger rules.
But this specious argument exposes a misunderstanding of how business works. Macy’s is going to label its products nationally, even without a national regulation requiring labeling, because it is simply too complicated to make different products for markets in different states. In response to strong state rules, companies don’t typically produce a safer product just for that state while selling unsafe products in other states. Instead, strong protections from a single state most often lead to market protections for all Americans.
Finally, the Macy’s announcement shows that pressure works. Everyone who works for safer products for children and families should know that our voices are being heard, and major corporations are responding. Take a moment to celebrate, and join us in the ongoing fight for safer, healthier environments for all Americans.
Judy Levin is the Flame Retardant Campaign Director at the Center for Environmental Health.