Major retailers, health insurers and sustainability groups are embracing a new initiative aimed at comparing companies’ policies for managing chemicals used in their products and supply chains, and whether they seek safer alternatives to dangerous substances.
\Loann Tran, co-owner of Happy Nails in Salinas, Calif., holds up a bottle of nail polish that was tested and found to contain toluene and formaldehyde, despite being labeled as free of those toxic chemicals, after a news conference at the Laney College School of Cosmetology in Oakland, Calif. Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP
WASHINGTON — A group of corporations and civil society watchdogs has unveiled a first-of-its-kind rating system aimed at providing common comparisons between the policies that companies have in place for managing the chemicals used in their products and along their supply chains.
The Chemical Footprint Project, which made its public debut last month, will formally start accepting corporate participation by the end of March. Companies will be asked to answer a series of 19 questions that score up to 100 points around two broad policy categories: how much a company’s leadership knows about the chemicals used in the production of its products, and how much of this information is being publicly disclosed.
The questions will also cover whether companies have policies in place to move toward the use of safer alternatives that are less harmful to human and environmental health and their progress in avoiding chemicals of high concern. This latter issue is a central longer-term goal for the project, although the answers are not weighted.
Still, the initiative’s organizers and supporters see a pointed focus on corporate knowledge and public transparency as inevitably moving in such a direction, providing new information and leverage for investors and the public as well as for corporate structures themselves. Together, these footprint scores will provide the first common, comprehensive metric to look at and compare chemicals management practices and policies across industries.
“The Chemical Footprint Project will help enable big retailers to measure their success in moving toward safer chemicals and products for their customers,” Mike Schade, a campaign director with Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy coalition that is not involved with the new project, said in a statement sent to MintPress News.
“We feel confident this new tool will empower big retailers to more comprehensively assess and address toxic chemicals in their supply chain. This will help retailers sell products that are safer for their customers and avoid the use of hazardous chemicals linked to chronic diseases.”
The project, which mirrors a similar benchmarking initiative for corporate policies around carbon pollution, was spearheaded by three sustainability groups — Clean Production Action, Pure Strategies and the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. Yet it has also received formal support from a range of big investment firms, environment and health groups, as well as corporations.
The latter includes retailers such as Staples and Target, as well as major health insurers such as Kaiser Permanente and Partners HealthCare. Several other prominent brands and manufacturers, including the electronics companies Seagate and Hewlett-Packard, took part in pilot projects to test out the rating system.
Many of these companies say they are supporting the Chemical Footprint Project as a way to engage with and guide their suppliers.
“We see the Chemical Footprint Project enabling us to quickly recognize and reward suppliers for doing what matters most to us in health care,” Vanessa Lochner, of Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement, “which is implementing systems to ensure their products and supply chains use safe and healthy chemical ingredients.”
Race to the top
The central contribution of benchmarking projects is typically in terms of collecting and collating, in a standardized form, information that is available only in disparate places and formats. In an age of massively increased availability of raw data, ensuring such comparability of information is receiving increasing focus from many directions.
Facilitating comparability will be a central objective of the Chemical Footprint Project, too, as will the related aim of sparking a “race to the top” among companies keen to compete for differentiation among consumers and investors.
Yet a more basic goal of the project is to push companies to ensure that they actually know what chemicals they and their suppliers are using, not only in the manufacturing process but also the cleaning, preparation and other related processes. The obvious corollary to this goal is to ensure that substantive thought is being into whether safer alternatives could be found for particularly dangerous substances.
Organizers say almost none of this information is currently available to the public. They also say the new project will go far beyond any transparency requirements currently required by federal law and regulation.
“The overwhelming majority of this information is not currently made public for the vast majority of companies. Even with leadership companies that are placing increased emphasis on these issues, internal policies are almost never made public,” Mark S. Rossi, the co-director of Clean Production Action, a key driver behind the new project, told MintPress.
“For investors, there is currently a huge gap in terms of sustainability assessment – a lot of the data just is not there. While they can look at waste, water and carbon policies, they haven’t been able to do any evaluation on chemicals.”
While investors have expressed significant interest in the new undertaking, Rossi says that some of the most excited response has come from those within corporate structures who complain about a lack of common language for discussing these issues.
In nearly every large company, he says, the management of chemicals has been “siloed, with everybody largely approaching the issue from different perspectives, with no harmonization or movement towards a common goal.” The new metrics offer that common language, available to everyone: from leadership on down, from lower-level managers on up, and in terms of comparison with a company’s competitors.
Eventually, the impact could be worldwide. Even the project’s initial set of data will require some understanding of a company’s national and global supply chains – for some, a very significant undertaking in itself. Yet consumer interest and regulatory action increasingly pose threats to corporations with lax chemicals management processes.
This month, for instance, the grocery chain Safeway was forced to pay nearly $10 million to more than 40 California counties for illegally disposing of chemicals and medicines. Some 500 Safeway stores were found to have been engaged in the illicit disposal of hazardous materials, resulting from spills and returns, over more than a half-dozen years. The company says it is now strengthening its disposal policies.
The Chemical Footprint Project’s assessment tool will be open to nearly all brands and manufacturers, but it will not cover chemicals producers themselves. An industry trade group offered cautious openness to the new initiative, though suggested that much was already being done to ensure consumer and environmental safety.
“ACC and its members work with retailers, suppliers, customers and others in the value chain to foster safe chemicals management and transparent information exchange. In addition, chemical safety is overseen by six federal agencies under more than a dozen federal laws and regulations,” the American Chemistry Council, a leading industry representative, told MintPress in a statement.
“ACC welcomes opportunities to work with organizations interested in advancing science-based decisions on the safe use of chemicals in everyday products, so parents and all consumers have confidence in the safety of the products they use in their homes.”
Although the new benchmarking project is only just now getting off the ground, supporters point to a number of trends already underway within corporate thinking about chemicals use that could facilitate companies’ interest in the new initiative.
“Companies are today investing much more in terms of knowing or having a third party that knows about the chemicals in their products and, increasingly, their supply chains,” Clean Production Action’s Rossi says. “Likewise, companies are putting more effort into identifying chemicals of high concern, and restricting that use.”
Industries that have made particular gains in this direction include producers of clothing, health and beauty goods, and cleaning and building products. Some of the most visible action has also come from the electronics sector.
In August, for instance, Apple made headlines for publicizing a list of chemicals and compounds it bans or restricts among its supply chain suppliers. The company explains the restrictions as an attempt to ensure that “anyone who assembles, uses, or recycles an Apple product can do so safely.”
Rossi says the most exciting trend is just on the horizon, with companies starting to offer comprehensive criteria by which to identify the safer chemicals they want to use. He says both Hewlett-Packard and Nike are already offering such broad frameworks.
“That’s really where we want to be: rewarding greener, safer chemistry and having those integrated into consumer products,” he says. “That’s kind of the ideal scenario because it means that we, as consumers, don’t need to worry about these issues any longer.”
The Chemical Footprint Project assessment tool is scheduled to be up and running by the end of March, and its first phase of operation would operate for the following three months. Thereafter, it will be up to participating companies to decide whether or not to make their results public, but organizers are hoping to offer their first rankings by the fall.
CORRECTION: In our original reporting, MintPress incorrectly reported that the Chemical Footprint Project assessment tool asks “a series of 100 questions.” In fact, the assessment tool asks 19 questions that score up to 100 points. Further, these questions do not cover how companies deal with chemical waste, but measure the success of companies in avoiding chemicals of high concern and using safer alternatives. We regret the errors.