Is Walmart a Leader on Safer Chemicals?

Consumers want to know that the products they buy contain ingredients that are safe for them and their loved ones. EDF has identified five pillars of leadership to help companies meet that demand and in doing so build consumer trust in the products they make and sell. One company that has recently taken major steps to drive safer chemicals and products into the market is Walmart.

In 2013, Walmart published its Sustainable Chemistry Policy, which focuses on ingredient transparency and advancing safer product formulations in household and personal care products. EDF worked with Walmart as it developed its policy and has advised the company during implementation and data analysis. This past April, Walmart announced that the company achieved a 95% reduction in the use of high priority chemicals of concern. Now, Walmart has shared considerable additional information detailing the progress made, including the identities of the high priority chemicals.

In our previous blog, we broke down the wealth of information that Walmart has shared. However, to fully evaluate the significance of the numbers, we now look at how well Walmart has done against EDF’s five pillars: institutional commitment, supply chain transparency, informed consumers, product design, and public commitment.

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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.

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Major Strides: Walmart Details Progress on Chemicals

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In 2013, Walmart published its Sustainable Chemistry Policy, which focuses on ingredient transparency and advancing safer product formulations in household and personal care products. EDF worked with Walmart as it developed its policy and has advised the company during implementation and data analysis.

This past April, Walmart announced that the company achieved a 95% reduction by weight in the use of high priority chemicals of concern. Today, Walmart shared considerable additional information detailing the progress made, including the identities of the initial high priority chemicals. Let’s unpack this.

Revisiting Walmart’s Sustainable Chemistry Policy

Broadly speaking, Walmart made three commitments in its 2013 policy:

  1. to increase transparency of product ingredients,
  2. to advance safer formulations of products, and
  3. to attain U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice certification [formerly Design for the Environment] of Walmart private brand products

The policy, which went into effect in January 2014, focuses on formulated household cleaning, personal care, and beauty products, sold at Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club U.S. stores. A few months after releasing the policy, Walmart published a policy implementation guide that gave suppliers greater specificity as to Walmart’s expectations and, importantly, outlined the quantitative metrics Walmart would use to track and report progress.

How Walmart has fared so far

  1. “Transparency”:

Walmart’s policy requires its suppliers to be more transparent about the ingredients in their products in two ways. First, Walmart requires suppliers to submit “full product formulations” – the names and concentrations of all ingredients in a product – to WERCSmart, a 3rd party- managed product ingredient database. WERCSmart provides the retailer with aggregate information about the types and quantities of chemicals in the products on its shelves without divulging specific product formulation data.

Second, the policy requires suppliers to increase ingredient transparency to consumers by calling for disclosure of product ingredients online starting in 2015. Further, any Priority Chemical found in a product must be disclosed on the product’s packaging starting in 2018. Priority Chemicals (PCs) are Walmart’s designated chemicals of concern, drawn from 16 reputable regulatory and authoritative lists.

To track the first requirement, Walmart determined the number of products whose ingredients are fully accounted for in the WERCSmart database. According to the data, 94% of the product formulations are full formulations. This suggests that the other results Walmart presents today are based on real data.

To track ingredient transparency to consumers, Walmart polled suppliers about their online disclosure practices using the Walmart Sustainability Index, its annual environmental issues survey sent to suppliers. In 2015, 78% of respondents reported they disclose ingredients online for all their products. Walmart also breaks down the responses  in more detailed ways, such as by department.

  1. “Advancing safer formulations of products”:

The bulk of Walmart’s policy focuses on providing safer products to customers by calling for the “reduction, restriction, and elimination” of Priority Chemicals (PCs), and for product reformulations to be undertaken using “informed substitution principles.” Because the list of PCs includes hundreds (if not thousands) of chemicals — as evidenced by Walmart’s reference list of regulatory and authoritative lists used to define its PCs — Walmart focused its suppliers’ attention on a shorter list of High Priority Chemicals (HPCs).

Today, Walmart identified the HPCs as propylparaben, butylparaben, nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), formaldehyde, dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate, triclosan, and toluene. These eight chemicals and chemical classes appear on a number of authoritative lists (e.g. EU REACH Substances of Very High Concern) for their hazardous properties and are worthy of action by Walmart. The revelation of the identities of the chemicals was long-awaited and provides context to the rest of the information Walmart shared today.

To assess the portion of its chemical footprint[1] related to product sales covered by the policy, Walmart has measured progress in two ways: (i) the total weight of HPCs contained in products sold, i.e. pounds of HPCs going out the door, and (ii) frequency of use, i.e. the number of products on store shelves that contain HPCs and the number of suppliers using HPCs in their products. Walmart relied on RetailLink, its internal product inventory database, and WERCSmart, mentioned earlier, to make these calculations. Walmart has also computed and published this data for all Walmart PCs in the covered product categories.

Walmart reports a dramatic reduction in the total weight of PCs and HPCs going out the door. The total weight of HPCs dropped by 95% and PCS by 45%.  The more than doubling of reduction of HPCs suggests that focusing attention on a subset of chemicals accelerated action.

Walmart attributes part of the success to its ability to determine which select set of suppliers used the majority (in pounds) of HPCs. This illustrates the utility of a product ingredient database that can provide aggregate information by supplier while not disclosing proprietary information.

As it relates to progress made in reducing the frequency of use of HPCs, the results were far more modest.  Unfortunately, it appears that suppliers who use HPCs are largely still using them, though the aggregate mass has dropped. Overall, the percent of products containing HPCs dropped by only 3 percentage points (to 16%), while the percent of suppliers using HPCs increased slightly (to 39%). Meanwhile, the percent of products containing any Priority Chemical actually went up one percentage point (to 80%).

So while the weight amount of HPCs, and PCs more broadly, has dropped significantly, there is clearly much more work to be done to achieve complete elimination of these chemicals.

  1. “Safer Choice [formerly Design for the Environment] in private brands”:

Lastly, Walmart committed to increase the number of private brand product offerings bearing Safer Choice certification. As discussed in our recent blog, the Safer Choice Program is a voluntary program implemented by the U.S. EPA that seeks to recognize and bring consumer awareness to products that are leading the way when it comes to safer ingredients. This is the only commitment for which Walmart has not released quantitative data. The company reports that it has hit snags in making progress against this target but is still committed to the program.

Conclusion

Overall, Walmart has made major strides regarding the commitments set forth in its policy. Equally notable, it has set in place effective systems to measure and track progress over time – an ability that can’t be underestimated.

In our next post, we’ll assess where Walmart’s progress rates against EDF’s five pillars of leadership for safer chemicals in the marketplace.


[1] As defined by the Chemical Footprint Project, a chemical footprint is “the total mass of chemicals of high concern in products sold by a company, used in its manufacturing operations and by its suppliers, and contained in packaging.”

Further Reading:

With Chemical Safety Reform Passed, What’s Next for Companies?

michelle_harveyHistory was made this week. Major environmental legislation was signed into law for the first time in nearly 25 years, updating the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the primary U.S. chemical safety law, and putting in place a new foundation of federal oversight for chemicals being used in the marketplace. It took the right conditions and a lot of hard work – including bold action from the retail and manufacturing sectors to answer consumers’ call for safer products – to get here.

Now, as this new law gets implemented, industry is headed for a new status quo on how chemicals are evaluated and approved for use. What does that mean for those companies already on the safer chemicals journey?

Safer Chemicals in Supply Chains

Fertile Ground for Safer Products

This new piece of legislation –The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act – amends for the first time the core provisions of TSCA, originally passed in 1976.  It requires new chemicals to clear a safety bar before entering the market, and mandates safety reviews of all existing chemicals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Many consumers assume this has been occurring all along. If a product has reached a retailer’s shelves, someone must have reviewed its chemical ingredients for safety, right? But this hasn’t been the case. When TSCA was signed into law, it grandfathered in the 64,000 chemicals then in use as “safe.”  The law didn’t mandate review of new chemicals entering the market, either. And it put the entire burden on EPA to find evidence of harm in order to restrict market entry. The updated law will for the first time give EPA the authority and resources to review both new and existing chemicals and make affirmative decisions about their safety, along with new authority to more easily obtain information necessary for conducting these reviews.

Under the Lautenberg Act, EPA will first focus on “high priority” chemicals, such as those classified as known human carcinogens, highly toxic, persistent in the environment or bioaccumlative (able to build up in the bodies of animals). In assessing the safety of chemicals, EPA must consider risks to vulnerable populations such as children and pregnant women. EPA can only consider the health and environmental impacts of the chemical—leaving consideration of costs or availability of alternatives to the next step when EPA is determining how to manage a chemical’s risks. The law also puts strong new limits on what information can qualify as ‘confidential business information,’ striking a balance between the public’s right to know about chemicals to which they may be exposed, and proprietary interests in chemical information important, for example, to innovation. Read more

Consumer Concern About Chemicals in Food Continues to Grow

Behind the Label_FFor the second year in a row, more than a third of consumers participating in the annual food industry survey rated chemicals in food as their most important food safety issue. Every year for the past decade, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) has surveyed more than 1,000 Americans aged 18-80, to gain insight into their attitudes towards food and diet. Although the way they have polled on these topics has changed over the years, the research shows a clear and steady rise in the number of Americans concerned about chemicals in their food.

In 2016, IFIC broke down the ‘chemicals in food’ option from 2015 into more specific concerns: chemicals in food (arsenic, mercury, BPA); carcinogens or cancer-causing chemicals in food; and food additives and ingredients (caffeine, MSG, flavors, colors, preservatives, etc.).

food-survey-graphics_block_2_croppedFor 38 percent of the respondents, these three specific sub-categories of chemicals in food combined were the most important food safety issue, a two-point jump since last year. And these concerns are being felt in the market: 40% of consumers who stated that chemicals were of great concern to them reported changing their eating habits.

Growing concern driving food supply chain changes

Consumers’ growing concern about chemicals reflects an increased awareness about the harmful effects they may have on human health and, importantly, a shift in how consumers are defining the issue of “safety” in food. As we reported a few months ago, a report from Deloitte, the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that consumers are increasingly concerned about the short-term health effects of chemicals in food (e.g., no toxins) as well as the long-term effects (e.g. no carcinogens).

To their credit, the food industry is beginning to respond to these concerns. Read more

Making Strides on Companies’ Chemical Footprints

Behind the Label_FAs we’ve written here before, public commitment is one of the essential pillars of leadership on safer chemicals. When a company leads on public commitment, that means communicating not just its initial goal-setting, but its full safer chemicals journey, publicly and honestly.

That’s no small task. The rise of shareholder resolutions across a wide range of sectors shows that investors and purchaser communities are becoming increasingly interested in how companies manage chemicals and mitigate risk. With the release of its inaugural report, one organization is throwing a spotlight on companies that are not just making, but following through on, those commitments.

Ingredients for measuring your (chemical) footprint

Chemical Footprint Project logoThe Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) recognizes companies that have effectively demonstrated public commitment to improved chemicals management. A joint effort launched in June 2015 by Clean Production Action, Pure Strategies and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the CFP was created as a simple way for investors and purchasers to assess these critical aspects of corporate value.

The CFP’s evaluation system was designed to be flexible and can be used for any business sector, from personal care products to toys. Using a twenty question survey, the CFP assesses companies’ performance in four areas:

  1. Chemicals management strategy (i.e. corporate chemicals policies),
  2. Chemical inventory (i.e. knowing the chemicals used in products, manufacturing processes and supply chains),
  3. Chemical footprint measurement (i.e. knowing the mass of chemicals of high concern in a company’s products and packaging, processes, and supply chain and tracking progress toward safer alternatives), and
  4. Public disclosure and verification.

A company’s performance is scored on a 100-point scale, with a bonus for verification – respondents receive up to 4 points for independent validation of reported data.

Breaking down CFP’s findings

Last week, the CFP released its inaugural report, with 24 companies from seven sectors participating. Though individual company scores are presented without identification, CFP’s initial report reveals many interesting themes: Read more

Making Informed Choices about Chemical Substitutes: The Path Less Traveled

Finding substitute chemicals for ingredients either known to be harmful or with unknown safety information can be a case of swapping the devil you know for the devil you don't, a recent report found.

Behind the Label_FBuyer Beware: Toxic BPA and Regrettable Substitutes Found in the Linings of Canned Foods,” an extensive report by five public interest groups, documents the persistent use of bisphenol-A, or BPA, as a base ingredient for lining metal cans. Because of its endocrine-disrupting properties and other associated health risks, BPA has been the focus of a major federal research project and public campaigns to eliminate its uses in contact with food. Despite those efforts, 67% of tested cans still contain the chemical.

Equally troubling is that the report found four chemical types used in alternative can coatings – acrylic resins, oleoresin, polyester resins and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) copolymers. These chemicals not only were approved for uses decades ago with little to no data, but some have less-than-perfect safety profiles. This lack of innovation raises questions about the food industry’s use of informed substitutions.

Gauging alternative chemicals

In 2013, a group of more than 100 representatives of business, universities and NGOs published The Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment, a broad consensus around simple, solutions-based guidance to move hazardous chemicals out of the supply chain and drive in safer innovations.

Key elements of informed decision-making that companies should use in choosing alternative product ingredients include reducing hazard, minimizing exposure, using the best available information, requiring disclosure and transparency, resolving trade-offs and taking action. While they were developed for chemicals in consumer products, these same principles apply to chemicals in food—or food additives— as well. In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences expanded these principles into its framework for chemical alternatives selection.

What’s in a can (liner)?

How do the food packaging industry’s choices and decision-making in replacing BPA measure up against the alternatives assessment principles listed above? According to the Buyer Beware report, not very well. Read more

Offering a Safer Choice is a Good Choice for Business

Sarah-Vogel-Safer-Choice

EDF Vice President, Health Sarah Vogel accepts EDF's Safer Choice Partner of the Year award

With so many vague claims and misleading labels on products in the marketplace, it’s no surprise that consumers are increasingly calling for safer products and greater transparency with regard to product ingredients. That’s why we at EDF were proud to share the stage at the EPA’s 2016 Safer Choice Partner of the Year awards ceremony yesterday with companies, trade groups, and other NGOs working to do just that.

EDF was recognized alongside other Safer Choice Partner of the Year awardees for “demonstrated leadership in furthering safer chemistry and products.” Among the 17 corporate winners were chemical makers, product manufacturers and retailers like BISSELL Homecare, The Clorox Company, Seventh Generation, BASF Corporation, Ecolab and Wegmans Food Markets, all of whom have submitted products or chemicals for certification under the Safer Choice label.

Safer Choice 2016 award winnersConsumer health is one of the most pressing – and frequently, less recognized – areas of corporate sustainability, and one where driving adoption of safer practices takes both ambition and leadership. We are gratified to see such a diverse range of corporations take significant steps to introduce safer chemicals into the marketplace and for organizations like Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and the Healthy Schools Campaign to lend their support and encouragement.

Every product labeled under the Safer Choice certification program makes the marketplace a little safer and our jobs as advocates for consumer safety a little easier. Read more

Walmart Makes Progress on Its Sustainable Chemistry Policy

Behind the Label_FIt’s been two and a half years since Walmart first committed to adopting a sustainable chemistry policy. Since then, consumers, companies and advocates have been watching the retailer with interest. Today, Walmart released its ninth annual Global Responsibility Report (GRR), which outlines its environmental and social activities for the past year. For the first time, this report includes information about the progress it has made against its Sustainable Chemistry Policy adopted in 2013, which aimed for more transparency of product ingredients and safer formulations of products.

According to Walmart, it has reduced the usage (by weight) of its designated high priority chemicals by 95 percent, a pretty sizeable number. Walmart has said that it will post more specifics in the coming weeks on its Sustainability Hub, including quantitative results on all aspects of the policy’s implementation guide and details about how they achieved the substantial reduction.

casestudy-walmartWhile this is a promising step in the right direction, the GRR doesn’t identify the high priority chemicals that have been reduced. It is difficult to fully appreciate Walmart’s accomplishments without knowing the names of these chemical targets. We expect that the names of the high priority chemicals will be revealed on the Sustainability Hub.

Walmart’s announcement marks the first time a major retailer has publicly measured and shared the progress it has made against its commitment on chemicals. This is especially important to EDF because we know through research and experience that shared stories about progress can prompt others to follow, to the benefit of public and environmental health.

We believe there are three key factors that have made Walmart's progress possible: 1) the existence and use of a 3rd party-managed chemicals database that can generate quantitative, aggregate information about the chemicals on Walmart’s shelves, 2) a policy that prioritizes specific chemical targets, and 3) a time-bound business commitment to track and share progress publicly (in Walmart’s policy they committed to start sharing progress in 2016). We look forward to the day these practices reflect the business norm rather than the exception.

Market leadership will always have an important role to play alongside policy in driving safer chemicals and products into commerce. EDF looks forward to the additional details forthcoming on Walmart’s Sustainability Hub.

Follow Boma Brown-West on Twitter: @Bbrown_west

Also of interest:

Can You Taste That Smell? Maybe You Don’t Want To.

Recently, SC Johnson took the next step in product transparency, becoming the first major player in the consumer goods industry to disclose 100 percent of fragrance ingredients for a product line – in this case, its Glade® Fresh Citrus Blossoms collection. Consumers can now see what chemicals make up these home fragrances by reading product packaging or visiting SCJ’s WhatsInsideSCJohnson.com ingredient website. Over time, the company will expand the disclosure to the rest of its air fresheners and other products.

WhatsInSCJohnsonThis is meaningful. Industry-wide, major consumer goods companies list fragrances in aggregate on an ingredient list, whereas in actuality, those fragrances are composed of many individual chemicals. Consumers deserve greater transparency.

As SCJ Chairman and CEO Fisk Johnson noted, “… key to [making thoughtful ingredient choices] is continually challenging the status quo. By sharing the full ingredient list for this fragrance — all the way down to the component level — we’re going beyond the norm of even so-called ‘natural’ products.”

EDF has applauded SCJ’s efforts on fragrance disclosure in the past, and we encourage them to continue increasing transparency throughout its product line. Read more