Leading On Chemicals: Not Just by Example, But By Commitments

BtlHeadlinesFor a number of years in the environmental world, we’ve been able to talk about the public commitments companies are making – and achieving – with respect to impacts like greenhouse gas emissions and water usage. Lately, companies have begun to publicly discuss goals related to safer products, recognizing that safer chemicals are part of the sustainability conversation.

For example, in the food sector, companies have cracked opened the proverbial “kitchen door” and started to share with consumers what is not in their products. This glimpse into the food-making process comes in the form of public commitments made by more than 10 major food manufacturers and restaurants in 2015 alone to eliminate or reduce artificial colors and flavors. Similar activity is occurring elsewhere, like the electronics sector and personal care sector.

But, what is leadership when it comes to public commitments? Today, we tackle this question as part of our series on the leadership pillars for safer chemicals in the marketplace. In a nutshell, leadership on public commitment goes beyond a one-time publication of goals; it requires a company to make frequent, transparent communication about its safer chemicals journey. Three key actions companies can and should take:

  1. Publish a corporate chemicals policy
  2. Share progress and
  3. Communicate the process

Of course, going public has its challenges, such as opening the door to criticism. But, good things happen as well when a company goes public with its goals and journey.

A company can rally its supporters inside the company and supply chain. It can find new allies in the media, business, and non-profit worlds. It can build consumer confidence in its brand. Finally, being open about goals and the subsequent journey helps a company succeed in its quest to meet those goals.

Today we've updated our Behind the Label website to delve further into the elements of leadership on public commitment and the associated hurdles and opportunities.

In addition to outlining what leadership on public commitment means, we've started tracking the commitments some companies are making, so those newer to the process have a sense of where to get started. We're beginning with the food sector, where grocers, restaurants and food manufacturers have become increasingly vocal about the food additives they are eliminating.

Further reading to help you get Behind the Label:

Product Design: Where the Rubber Hits the Road on Safer Chemicals

Behind the Label_FThe call for safer chemicals and products has reached a tipping point in the marketplace. A recently released report from the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3) lays out compelling market trends for safer chemicals across several indicators including demand, capital flow, and job growth. The report notes that the growth rate for safer chemicals is expected to be 24 times higher than that for conventional chemicals over the time period of 2011-2020. In sum, there is tremendous market opportunity for companies able to deliver on demonstrably safer chemicals and products.

Today, EDF is publishing the fourth of five installments on its Pillars of Leadership for Safer Chemicals in the Marketplace: Product Design. The Product Design leadership pillar is about getting specific on how a company will move away from problematic chemicals and ensure the use of safer chemicals. It’s about putting Institutional Commitments to safer products and chemicals into action.

In a nutshell, the Product Design leadership pillar includes four key parts:

  1. Establishing specific measurable objectives with timelines (e.g., percentage reduction of a target chemical by a certain time);
  1. Determining a methodology for how a company will meet objectives (i.e., identifying how information on the hazards and risks of chemicals will be developed and subsequently used to make decisions on product development and sale);
  1. Identifying internal and external stakeholders that are needed to successfully meet objectives; and
  1. Developing a timeline for tracking progress against objectives, reevaluating and updating objectives, and assessing the overall effectiveness of the Product Design process.

Product Design for safer chemicals is where the rubber hits the road in a company’s journey from Institutional Commitments to impact.  It helps companies become leaders in the rapidly expanding marketplace for safer products – and leads to a healthier world.

Powerful Business: The Lever for Change Across the Supply Chain

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.

Sometimes when a problem seems too big, too ugly and too complex to handle, you need a lever to help move things along.  All of the big environmental problems we currently face fall into this category.

When it comes to tackling our planet’s biggest problems, there is a full spectrum of approaches and many different leverage points. For me, the most important lever is business. A thriving planet and a thriving economy don’t have to be at odds. EDF is focusing on helping businesses make their supply chains cleaner, more efficient and more profitable.

Working with powerful business has been a cornerstone of EDF’s approach ever since we launched our 1st partnership with McDonald’s 25 years ago. Since then, we have kick-started market transformations in fast food with McDonalds and Starbucks, shipping with FedEx, retail with Walmart, and private equity with KKR. With each partnership, we’ve worked to create new, sustainable demand signals that extend across the supply chain. When powerful business speaks, suppliers listen. EDF is helping the most impactful companies commit to selling sustainably-produced products, encouraging every supplier and producer contributing to those products to also adopt more sustainable practices. Read more

Securing Safer Chemicals in Food

Behind the Label - the blueprint for safer products in the marketplaceIt seems that almost every week, another major food company announces plans to remove artificial colors and flavors from their products. In the past six months, major food companies such as Nestle, General Mills, Kellogg's, Hershey’s and Campbell’s committed to reformulating many of their iconic brands to be free of artificial colors and  flavors. National restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Subway and Noodles & Company also made similar commitments. Tens of billions of dollars of products are being reformulated.

What’s driving all this change?

It turns out more and more Americans are concerned about what goes into their food, especially when it comes to the thousands of chemical additives—substances used to color, preserve, flavor, or emulsify food or to process or package food, like phthalates.

According to a May 2015 industry survey, 36% of consumers polled said chemicals in food was their most important safety issue for them and their families today — more than pesticides, animal antibiotics, undeclared allergens and pathogens. This is up from 9% in 2011. What’s more, 45% said they changed food purchases as a result of information they learned about chemicals, pesticide residues, and animal antibiotics.

woman reading labelAnother survey by CivicScience published the same month reported similar numbers with health concerns about preservatives and chemicals rating higher  than added sugar, saturated fats, and sodium. These weren’t urban foodies following the latest trends on social media: those most concerned were generally from rural areas, more likely to be influenced by TV news, and less likely to eat out or use social media. With numbers like these, no wonder the food industry is scrambling to respond.

There is good reason to be concerned about potentially unsafe chemicals in the food supply, and importantly, the problem extends well beyond whether an ingredient might be artificial. So, while these recent efforts to remove artificial ingredients respond to mounting consumer concerns, they won’t sate the consumer’s appetite for healthier and safer foods.

EDF is launching a new initiative to move potentially unsafe chemicals from the food supply by harnessing the transformative power of supply chains. EDF’s Behind the Label: A Blueprint for Safer Food Additives provides a roadmap for corporate leadership that moves companies from a reactionary response to artificial ingredients to a proactive approach to ensure safer, simpler food.  We’re excited to have Tom Neltner leading this new effort on safer chemicals in food.  Tom spent years investigating the safety of chemical food additives at the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be outlining the problem of potentially unsafe chemicals in food, the current state of the market response to rising concerns, and our vision for corporate leadership for safer chemicals in food.

Consumers Deserve To Know What's In Their Products

This installment of our Pillars of Leadership series explores Informed Consumers.

Sharing ingredient information with consumers is key to business leadership on chemicals. It can build consumer confidence, trust, loyalty – and market advantage. Numerous surveys (see here and here) and advocacy campaigns (see here) reveal that people want more ingredient information than is typically available today. The key to success in cultivating an Informed Consumer is providing product ingredient information that is comprehensive, accessible, and importantly, meaningful.

Woman label blog image

Consumers want to:

  • Have easy access to consistent, reliable information
  • Feel empowered when making purchasing decisions for themselves and their families
  • Understand what they’re bringing into their homes
  • Avoid adverse health and environmental impacts
  • Trust that brands and retailers respect their interest in knowing product composition

How does a company cultivate an Informed Consumer? For starters, by sharing ingredient information on product packaging and online for products it makes or sells, with content that extends well beyond regulatory requirements. While packaging physically limits the amount of information that can be shared with consumers, online ingredient disclosure allows greater flexibility in terms of the extent and type of ingredient information, as well as how that information is accessed and presented. Read more

The Who What Why and How of Safer Chemicals

This installment of our Pillars of Leadership series explores Supply Chain Transparency.

You can’t act on what you don’t know. And if you can’t take informed action, you can’t innovate in smart and sustainable ways. A key step toward achieving industry leadership on chemicals is to gain a full understanding of the chemical supply chain.

Pillars of Leadership for Safer Chemicals in the MarketplaceSupply Chain Transparency informs a company’s decisions to effectively mitigate risk of current or pending chemical regulations (see here) and to efficiently allocate resources towards product innovation (see here). It also improves the data-set for product life cycle assessments, thereby yielding more firm-specific results. Above all, Supply Chain Transparency helps a company define and understand its starting point and its goals.

What does Supply Chain Transparency mean explicitly? EDF defines true transparency leadership as knowing the What, How Much, Why, and Who of the chemicals in one’s products. Read more

Behind the Label: How Business Sees Opportunity in Safer Chemistry

Behind the Label_FTens of thousands of chemicals are used to make the numerous products we use every day, yet regulatory oversight of the health and safety of these chemicals is severely lacking. Research has detected a number of these chemicals in our environment, homes, and bodies. At the same time, research has also linked a number of chemicals to disorders and disease such as asthma[1] and cancer[2]. Consumer concern is growing. With major retailers like Walmart, Target and CVS making public commitments to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals, chemical manufacturers and consumer product companies are hearing loud and clear the need for stronger policy solutions and market demand for safer chemical innovation.

EDF developed these case studies to highlight examples of innovative chemistries developed in response to demands for safer chemical ingredients in consumer products. The efforts of a leading brand and a chemical manufacturer – two ends of the consumer product value chain – are provided here.  We explore the motivation behind their product innovations and reformulations, what the innovations allowed the companies to achieve, and the impact of these innovations on their business and sector. These are not endorsements but rather an exploration of how companies are approaching safer chemistry innovation.

What We Discovered

A number of interesting results emerge from these case studies:

  1. Products designed to better protect human health can be economically successful.
  2. There is more than one way to resolve the same problem.
  3. Getting innovations to the market requires cooperation across the supply chain. Sometimes it requires external forces to set the right marketplace conditions.
  4. Reformulations can be cost-neutral despite changing suppliers and/or processing facilities.

A Snapshot of Each Case Study




In this case study we look at chemical manufacturer AkzoNobel’s work to create ingredients that have improved human health and environmental profiles. We learn how regulatory developments aided in the commercialization of AkzoNobel’s Dissolvine as a phosphate-free chelate in automatic dishwashing detergent. AkzoNobel collaborated with its customers and sought input from regulators to develop testing methods to examine Dissolvine’s biodegradability and human health profile. For the full case study, click here.

7th genSeventh Generation

In this case study, we learn about Seventh Generation’s work to replace a common surfactant used in cleaning products, Sodium Laurel Ether Sulfate (SLES). Production of SLES generates the contaminant 1,4 dioxane, a probable human carcinogen[3], that is then transferred to products. Seventh Generation succeeded in replacing SLES with the non-ethoxylated surfactant Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS), which is not accompanied by the 1,4 dioxane contaminant. Seventh Generation’s efforts resulted in a better-performing product and maintained sales. After launch and continued public concern about 1,4 dioxane, competitors of Seventh Generation announced  their own plans to reduce 1,4 dioxane in their products. For the full case study, click here.

We will be updating our Behind the Label series of blogs and case studies in the coming months and we invite you to join in the conversation.


[1]Bornehag CG et al. 2004. The association between asthma and allergic symptoms in children and phthalates in house dust: a nested case–control study. Environ Health Perspect 112:1393–1397.
[2]Huff J (2007). "Benzene-induced cancers: abridged history and occupational health impact". Int J Occup Environ Health 13 (2): 213–21.
[3] See National Toxicology Program, International Agency for Research on Cancer, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

How Institutional Commitment Translates to Safer Products

Behind the Label_FSuccessful business outcomes require strong and continuous commitment and support from company leaders. As with any change initiative, modifying how a manufacturer selects the ingredients it uses or how a retailer selects products requires time and resources, and infrastructural and behavioral adjustments. In our previous blog in this series, we identified five 'pillars' that are critical to attaining industry leadership on safer chemicals.

The first pillar, Institutional Commitment, is essential in ensuring leadership support for business transformation.

Institutional Commitment to safer chemicals frames a company’s journey, builds internal champions, and sets accountability for the journey at every level of the organization. In a committed company, action ripples throughout the organization; company executives set top-level goals that are reinforced by middle management in a way that empowers employees in every business function to make the transformation successful through their own daily operations. It’s about true integration of the new safer chemistry philosophy into everyday business. Read more

5 Things Companies Can Do to Ensure Safer Products in the Marketplace

Tens of thousands of chemicals are used to make consumer products, with more entering the marketplace each year. Many chemicals are now detected routinely in indoor air, food, drinking water, house dust – and our bodies. Research has linked certain chemicals to negative health impacts ranging from cancer to abnormal development of our reproductive systems, while most chemicals lack adequate health and safety data entirely. Too often harmful substances like lead, asbestos and toxic flame retardants persist in the market – and environment – for years before action is taken. We need a new marketplace paradigm. We need companies, from chemical makers to consumer product manufacturers to retailers, to be leaders in fostering the healthy, sustainable world we all deserve.

Why companies should lead

Resiliency is the ability to successfully adapt to anything that can disrupt your system or way of life. It’s a concept that applies in the physical world and in the business world. Leading on safer chemicals improves a company’s ability to bear chemical regulations, product liability occurrences, product recalls, and other costly externalities typically not factored into the chemical selection process during product development. Resiliency helps a company mitigate costs and stay competitive.

To maintain market longevity, companies need to keep a pulse on consumer needs and regularly innovate to meet those needs. Today’s consumers want to know what’s in their products, and they want safer ingredients. Increased innovation and uptake of safer ingredients in new products can help companies meet consumer demand, stay relevant, and achieve competitive advantage. Read more

Behind the Label: the Blueprint for Safer Chemicals in the Marketplace

Behind the Label - the blueprint for safer chemicals in the marketplaceIf you’re in the business of using chemicals to make consumer products – things like shampoo or baby lotions, spray cleaners or laundry soap – the last few years have likely been anything but dull. State legislatures have been passing laws restricting certain chemicals from products; consumers are demanding more transparency about product ingredients; and some of the nation’s biggest retailers, including Walmart and Target, have issued chemical policies of their own.

Having worked for years to reduce the public’s exposures to hazardous chemicals and drive incentives for safer innovations in chemistry, Environmental Defense Fund is encouraged to see the growing demand for ingredient transparency and chemical safety. But for companies impacted by these new policies, adjusting to new demands may be challenging. As a business strategy, waiting to respond to the next chemical of concern or the next regulatory action, as opposed to taking proactive steps to improve transparency and chemical safety, is an unsustainable means for addressing risk.

What if your company didn’t have to worry about the next retailer’s list of priority chemicals, the next set of state or federal policy changes or regulations, or the next chemical of concern du jour to light up social media outlets?