Major Strides: Walmart Details Progress on Chemicals


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.


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:

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