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:

Old Excuses on Policy Advocacy Don’t Work Anymore

I admire corporate sustainability leaders who, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, know how to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

I’m optimistic about our future when I see courageous leaders at companies like Unilever, Pepsi, Mars and others lead the way by looking beyond short-term profits for long-term success and publicly advocating for the smart regulatory and policy changes required to preserve the natural systems that people, communities and companies need to thrive.

Yet, there are too many companies that still rely on old excuses when asked to take a public stand on energy and environmental policy.

To be a bold leader in the 21st century requires a strong voice on the most pressing environmental issues of the day. It’s no longer good enough to put a green label on a product or declare in an annual report that your company is making the world a better place. It’s time to take the next leadership step.

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At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we like to call the next step of sustainability leadership the business policy nexus. It simply means that your company has aligned your sustainability goals and strategies with your external engagement on policy.

If your company isn’t operating in the business policy nexus, it’s time to retire the following excuses and go public in support of forward-facing environmental policies:

Excuse #1 "We're not political."

Companies can no longer be silent on issues like the environment. Customers expect the brands and companies they love to stand for something and to show leadership on issues that matter to them.

In previous decades, this excuse might have sounded more like, “we want Democrats and Republican to buy our products.” However, this recent working paper by researchers at Duke and Harvard suggests that C.E.O. activism can sway public opinion — and even increase interest in buying a company’s products.

Corporate neutrality on the issues that matter may be outdated. If you don’t believe me, maybe ask Paul Polman of Unilever or Indra Nooyi of Pepsi or Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. Their corporate voices ring loud and clear when it comes time to stand up for the environment.

Excuse #2 "It's not part of our core business."

In a 2015 article the head of government relations for one of the world’s biggest companies told the Guardian: “There’s a reluctance if a regulation doesn’t get into your core competency to get into somebody else’s backyard. It’s an unspoken acknowledgment that you stick to your knitting.”

The earth is everyone’s backyard. And the state of our environment affects every business.

Just take a look at the companies who have backed the Clean Power Plan. “Clean energy” isn’t the core competency of global giants like Amazon, General Mills, Nestle, or Levis, but these companies and many others made their corporate voices heard for the good of business and society.

Excuse #3 “Our government affairs team deals with policy.”

Some corporate leaders have been passing the buck to other departments, other industries and other leaders for too long.

You have a responsibility to inspire everyone in your organization to maximize the triple bottom line: profit, people and planet.

Leaders find it easy to measure profit; measuring social and environmental impact is a little harder. Without good data, no one in a company feels comfortable taking the lead on policy.

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This is where an NGO like EDF can help make a difference. EDF has built a framework for corporate sustainability success that encompasses science, strategy, and systems to create measurable environmental and business benefits. Your organization can use this framework to become a sustainability leader and confidently stand up for smart climate policy that addresses your future business risks.

The old excuses don’t work anymore. So stand up for change and advocate for policies that will help us overcome the most serious environmental challenges we face. The issues are too important; the consequences for little or no action are too serious.

Follow Tom Murray on Twitter: @tpmurray

Further reading:

Corporate Sustainability Storytelling: The Whack-a-Mole Response Needs to Stop

Why is it that some environmentalists feel the need to play whack-a-mole whenever a leading brand peeks its head above the fray to publicly declare a corporate sustainability achievement?

I’m not going to cite specifics – just look at the comments section of any major news outlet covering a big brand sustainability announcement – but I do want to address the negative impact this has on business stepping up for the environment.

As an environmental NGO with a history of working in the trenches with powerful businesses, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) often gets to play the mole role. We’ve endured our share of slings and arrows since first partnering with McDonald’s over 25 years ago, so I can empathize with companies who are reticent to step up and publicly acknowledge the sustainability work they are doing.

EDF has thick skin and a singular mission to forge solutions that help people and nature thrive. It’s not always the same for major brands that have to balance the needs of shareholders, suppliers, employees, communities, and yes, the planet. It’s difficult to step forward and share sustainability stories when doing so invites backlash. I get it.

While environmentalists push for change in corporate business and policy practices, we must also adjust our attitudes in working with and encouraging those businesses who are trying to make a difference.

Basic behavioral psychology leads me to believe that if we want more major companies innovating, executing and sharing best corporate sustainability practices, the whack-a-mole approach needs to stop. Read more

Regulation as a Platform for Innovation

IMG_0187To get anything accomplished, you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One unsung story buried in last week’s release of EPA’s new source methane rules may make good options even better – driving innovation and offering industry more options to meet the methane challenge.

The new rules target a pervasive problem: methane – the primary component of natural gas – leaking throughout the oil and gas value chain. Methane emissions represent a waste of saleable resources, a reputational risk, and a contributor to both poor local air quality and climate change.

Under the EPA’s framework, oil and gas operators must take steps to minimize emissions from new and modified sources – from finding and fixing leaks to swapping out equipment to reduce methane vented from pneumatic controllers and pumps. Companies in Colorado working to comply with the state’s similar rule have reported that putting similar measures in place is cost-effective, even generating positive returns from selling the captured gas.

But what should an agency do when the solutions available now are reasonable but not perfect? Existing strategies don’t monitor all the time – only a few days a year. So leaks and malfunctions can be missed, or leak for months before they are fixed.

MDC-devices-in-fieldNew technologies – emerging from research labs, startups and mature companies in adjacent sectors – can help spot leaks at lower cost, including through continuous monitoring. EDF’s Methane Detectors Challenge will launch pilots of sensitive, rugged, low-cost continuous methane monitors with oil and gas operators. Due to collaborative partnerships, these innovative technologies are advancing rapidly.

In a regulated industry like oil and gas, adaptability as technology progresses is key to ensuring operators can use more effective and lower-cost solutions as they become available. That insight led many innovators, forward-thinking oil and gas operators and EDF to call on EPA to include a pathway to innovation in the final rule. Read more

3 Ways NGOs Can Help Sustainable Supply Chains Grow

Maggie headshotEarlier this week, a former sustainability executive with McDonald’s delivered a wake-up call for environmental groups, listing “5 ways that NGOs stunt sustainability.” In this article, Bob Langert explains the ways that nonprofits are failing to help companies turn sustainability commitments into on-the-ground results. In the context of sustainable palm oil, he notes:

“You can’t just go after big brands and expect them to manage a supply chain that has them seven stages removed, starting with the smallholders, to mills, then plantations, to storage facilities, refineries, ingredient manufacturers and then product manufacturers, then into a final product a retailer sells, such as ice cream, a granola bar or shampoo — with palm as a minute ingredient.”

He’s right – sustainability in supply chains, especially in agriculture, is incredibly complex.

So how can environmental groups effectively champion sustainability progress throughout global supply chains, from the C-suite to crop fields?  Here are three ideas EDF has learned from deep, on-the-ground partnerships with leading brands. Read more

Sustainable Supply Chains: No More Excuses

ElizabethSturcken-(2)_287x377A question for forward-thinking business executives: if you could do something that would directly reduce more than 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, 80 percent of water usage, and two-thirds of tropical forest loss globally… wouldn’t you do it?

The answer: yes, of course you would!  That’s why you’re forward-thinking!

That’s also why Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has been working in supply chains (for years) to improve the impacts of the global production and use of consumer goods.

Those impacts are huge. Really getting at them, unfortunately, has not been so easy. The excuse that we’ve heard over and over again boils down to “you can’t manage what you can’t see.”  Basically, while most companies’ impacts are in their supply chain, most businesses have very little knowledge of how those supply chains actually function.  And, the further up in the chains you go, the less visibility there is.

EDF has a lot of first-hand experience with this: after years of on-the-ground work with farmers, our Ecosystems team knows precisely how difficult it is to capture impacts at the farm level.  Despite the on-farm benefits of optimizing fertilizer use in cost savings, reduced greenhouse gases and increased water quality, fewer than 20 % of companies collect this data.

TSC2011lgHow do I know that statistic? Because The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) has just released Greening Global Supply Chains: From Blind Spots to Hot Spots to Action, their first-ever impact report.  It’s full of stunning data about the huge weight that consumer goods place on people and the planet. Since it covers more than 80% of consumer goods product categories, it is the comprehensive way to understand environmental hot spots in global supply chains.

Which means the “no visibility” excuse is now officially over. Read more

Mothers and CEOs: Why Corporate Sustainability Reports Matter

Walmart has just released its report on Corporate Sustainability—the “Global Responsibility Report”.

Nicknamed the GRR, the joke around my office is that “GRR” sounds like a growl—GRRRR. But while its seventy-three dense pages might seem daunting, the GRR is anything but scary. In fact, from my perspective as both a mother and someone with unique access to the day-to-day workings of Walmart, I have to say that it’s a must-read.

Why? Because like all corporate sustainability reports, the GRR tells the story of how big business is—or is not—adjusting their operations to help the planet and its inhabitants.

And by inhabitants I mean you. And me. All of us.

Meet Super-Eco-Business-Mom When new mom JENNY AHLEN feeds her daughter, she may also be pondering this question: how do we feed a global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050? That’s because Jenny is also EDF’s team lead for their partnership with Walmart, which gives her both a unique perspective and a unique power. She knows the stakes are high for the world her daughter will grow up in. But Jenny is in a position to do something about it. Thus, she spends her days working with the world’s largest retailer trying to figure out the best approach to “fertilizer optimization”: the science behind increasing yields while reducing the environmental impacts of crop production. How did Jenny arrive at this nexus of the nursery and contemporary eco-business?

To all the mothers of the world: like you, I want the best for my child. While there are many things we can’t control about our kids’ world, we do have power over things like what goes in and on their bodies, which toys can help them learn, and how to create a safe and loving environment for them to grow. Knowing what’s in these sustainability reports means knowing whether the stores and brands we choose every day are working with us, or making our job harder.

To all the C-suite executives: See above. Mothers everywhere are starting to demand both transparency and action around creating a healthier world for our kids. We are your customers, and we’re sending you a demand signal to make us happy.  Coincidentally, it can make your business more efficient, more profitable and more resilient—all things that your shareholders will love to hear. Believe me, you want to be able to issue a sustainability report that’s both real and robust.

So if the GRR is Walmart’s report card on global responsibility, how did they do? 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

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