Product Ingredients at Walmart Changed for the Better. Really.

It’s whack-a-mole time.

In April, Walmart released their 2016 Global Responsibility Report. In it, they noted a 95% reduction by weight in the approximately ten high priority chemicals in home and personal care products covered by their 2013 Sustainable Chemistry policy. Ninety-five percent is a big number, but the substance – the chemical names, the volumes – was missing.

No longer.

Today, Walmart released the names of those high priority chemicals, with details as to how the reductions were achieved. The chemicals – butylparaben, propylparaben, dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, formaldehyde, nonylphenol ethoxylates, triclosan, and toluene – will not come as a surprise to most who work on these issues; these chemicals have been called out for action by many for quite some time.

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If this announcement is met like most environmental stories told by corporations, the mole-whacking will commence shortly. WHACK! Why these chemicals and not those? WHACK! What took so long? WHACK! What about everything else? While companies that do nothing will stay in the shadows, those like Walmart trying to drive needed change usually get whacked for what they haven’t done already.

And of course a lot still remains to be done.

But this story is a good one, and Walmart deserves credit for what they have accomplished. Walmart is the one company in the world that could drive drive over 11,500 tons – 23 million pounds – of chemicals out of so much product in less than 24 months.

What’s extraordinary is that they chose to do so at all, albeit with years of nudging from EDF. Many sustainability wins are also economic wins. Reduce GHG emissions, and you’ll usually see cost savings on energy expenses. Address water use in drought-prone areas, and you avoid costly supply chain disruptions that cause price spikes and unhappy customers.

But chemicals? The business case can be thin to none. Even when the science says it’s time to make a change—that one or more ingredients are no longer as safe as we once thought they were—changing a product formula without changing the product can be really hard.

And slow – 18 to 24 months on average. The ingredients ARE the product – they are the smell, the feel, the way it cleans or softens or does whatever it’s supposed to do. If a product is on Walmart’s and other retailers’ shelves, it’s because it sells. Change it, and you risk a lot of sales if customers reject the alternative. Change a lot of products, and you risk a lot more sales.

Piling on, when you talk about chemicals, people’s eyes glaze over—or they panic. Few-to-no marketing wins exist here. Despite the fact that pretty much everything, humans included, is a chemical mixture, people don’t want better chemistry. They want no chemistry, and keep looking for nonexistent chemical-free products, as if chemicals in and of themselves are the problem (some are, but many are not).

Yet Walmart decided to tackle ingredient chemistry anyway – and they changed the marketplace.

EDF spent years working side-by-side with Walmart associates to scrutinize the science, understand the problem from the retailer and supply chain perspectives, consider possible solutions, ponder potential strategies and metrics, understand the implications of various options, and map a path forward. Many others weighed in along the way.

Then Walmart released their policy, and they went big. Walmart didn’t just call for the ouster of the high priority chemicals. They committed to make the product ingredients transparent to customers. They embraced informed substitution, which means they’re intent on making sure that what goes in is better than what’s been pushed out. And for their private brand products, Walmart set their sights on Safer Choice, a voluntary labeling program administered by US EPA that requires every ingredient to be as safe as possible.

It took EDF six years on-site to reach the September 2013 starting line, when Walmart’s sustainable chemistry policy was released and the clock began ticking. It took less than 3 years for suppliers to remove 95% of the initial chemical targets by weight from their products on Walmart shelves. The journey is far from over, but let’s rest the mole-mallets for a moment and give credit where credit is due.

A lot of heavy lifting lies ahead. Perhaps, in the meantime, start swinging at those companies that are doing nothing.

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