Peeking through the Chemical Curtain with GreenWERCS

In May, with very little fanfare, Walmart introduced an extraordinary new tool known as GreenWERCS. GreenWERCS assesses the composition of chemical intensive products – which is just about any non-food item on a Walmart shelf that you can pour, squeeze, dab or otherwise apply to your body or use in or around your home or car. GreenWERCS analyzes the composition of individual products from ingredient data entered by manufacturers, examining its potential impact on human health and the environment.

GreenWERCS uses a pre-identified scoring and weighting algorithm to provide information on the chemical ingredients of the products and whether they include:

  • persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs);
  • carcinogens,  mutagens or reproductive toxicants (CMRs); and
  • potential hazardous waste.

The presence of probable endocrine disruptors is also noted, while the presence of nanomaterials will be addressed in GreenWERCS 2.0. Overall, the intent of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and other proponents of this tool is to drive the market toward greener chemistry, where chemical ingredients in products receiving a poor GreenWERCS score are replaced with substitutes that are proven preferable.

In full disclosure, I’m not an unbiased observer – I co-chaired the Walmart Chemical Intensive Products Sustainable Value Network workgroup of more than two dozen industry, government and NGO representatives that spent more than 18 months developing the scoring and weighting metrics behind GreenWERCS. The workgroup debated criteria, wrestled with issues of hazard versus risk and reviewed and agreed upon 30 authoritative lists from the U.S. and Europe covering some 3,500 substances of concern against which products are being reviewed. One extraordinary aspect of the tool was the level of agreement among the workgroup participants as to what should be included in the tool – and the fact that everyone supported this new level of disclosure.

What’s truly encouraging is the level of transparency on these scored chemical characteristics that the GreenWERCS tool provides to retailers and suppliers. The more insight a retailer has into a product’s composition, the better the conversation can be between retailer and suppliers as to improved chemical alternatives. The key question retailers can ask of suppliers is: Can this product do its job effectively and affordably without use of these listed chemicals? Ask that question often enough and new innovative solutions hopefully will follow. While the customer is unlikely to ever see the GreenWERCS analysis, over time it should result in better consumer products from which to select.

Moving forward, EDF will advocate for the Walmart Chemical Intensive Products Sustainable Value Network to encourage reformulation with chemicals certified as green through U.S. EPA’s Design for Environment (DfE) program, develop a list of emerging chemicals of concern to watch for and devise strategies to encourage ingredient disclosure.

GreenWERCS represents the second phase of Walmart’s new approach to assessing chemicals. In the initial phase, companies selling chemical intensive products to Walmart had to provide 100% full disclosure of all intentionally added chemical ingredients to the Worldwide Environmental Regulatory Compliance Solutions (WERCS), a third party service provider. The WERCSmart Chemical Assessment Review Process was instituted to provide information to Walmart regarding products that it sells that may be regulated under federal and state environmental laws and to ensure that chemical intensive products were handled and disposed of appropriately. GreenWERCS allows the same product data to be screened for potential adverse human and environmental health risks associated with the chemical ingredients. Almost overnight, enhanced transparency into components of concern can be available to Walmart on a significant number of products.

Although developed through Walmart, the GreenWERCS tool is available for other retailers to use. Since few suppliers sell their products only to Walmart, the GreenWERCS database can provide immediate insight into consumer product composition on almost any retailer’s shelves. And every time a company changes the product composition for the better, everyone benefits.

This content is cross-posted on Greenbiz.com

5 comments

  • Stephen Donovan | 5 years ago

    Dear Ms. Harvey,

    Things may be changing; this may be a response, in part, to the junk coming in from China contaminated with toxins (lead, mercury, chromium, melamine, etc). The GreenWERCS idea seems good, moving in the right direction, but based on what I can gleam from the article it has limitations as it is based on what a manufacture says is in (or not) a product.

    This program does not seem address lead in children’s toys, sulfur in sheetrock, or melamine in cat-food, for example. If Wal-Mart to have an investigation lab to test for illegal compounds, then it would be even better. Relying on the US government to do this may not be a prudent choice. When you consider that there is only one US Consumer Product Safety Commission Inspector for ten ports of entry, this protection seems pretty thin and porous.

    Does GreenWERCS plan to have a testing lab to see what is actually in products or does Wal-Mart farm that out to a private lab or does Wal-Mart have such a facility that I don’t know about?

    Thanks for all you do,
    Stephen Donovan

  • Hi, Stephen –

    It is important to keep in mind that Walmart’s activities are a small but significant step towards changing how we think about how “stuff” is made. It is not a substitute for reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – in which EDF is actively engaged – or other important legislation that governs what can and can’t be used in consumer products.

    What the GreenWERCS screening process does do is to help Walmart identify which products contain intentionally added known chemicals of concern, for the purpose of incentivizing their removal from these products. Getting rid of the known chemicals of concern is only the first step. Finding safer chemical substitutes is a related challenge and we will be developing guidance for Walmart buyers to help them evaluate alternative formulations.

    The GreenWERCS screen can be expanded to evaluate other types of products, such as wrinkle resistors and other chemically-based textile additives, but it will never address contaminants such as melamine. Quality testing in laboratories – by product manufacturers and by retailers like Walmart – is the only real way to verify what is actually in a product. Verifying the data entered into GreenWERCS will require similar testing at some point.

    The bottom line is that we expect GreenWERCS will help broaden the conversation between buyers and suppliers to include chemical information. It is not, by itself, the solution to all of our problems. It is an important first step.

  • Good post and excellent followup discussion. These are key questions we have to be asking about products and supply chains.

    The goal is greening the entire supply chain, before and aft the end-user product. We want the process to be as green as the product. Greening the entire process is possible but does involve fairly sophisticated technology, as today's supply networks are complex and changing. So are the environmental regulations that guide it.

    Products to address greening the entire supply chain are in use already. These are supply chain communication tools, where materials information from all corners of a supply chain is automatically collected and securely stored. Examples would have to include REACHtracker and Material Disclosure modules (SaaS) from Actio Corp.

    Let's keep discussing and moving towards a greener supply chain network. Green from solder to wire, from BOM to component, to customer and beyond.

    Nice work, GW, on your end of the chain.

    Kathleen Hurley

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