How are some of the world’s biggest companies moving towards safer chemicals in products?

Mark Rossi

    Mark Rossi
    Executive Director
    Clean Production Action

Mark Rossi, Executive Director of Clean Production Action (CPA) spoke at last year’s Safer Chemicals in Products conference, which took place on 17-18 September in Boston, USA.

Prior to the conference, we caught up with him to find out more about what leading companies are doing to improve their chemical footprints.

Q) What characteristics are shared by companies that perform highly in terms of their chemical footprints?

Clean Production Action has the Chemical Footprint Project, which has two major initiatives under it. One is chemical footprinting – actually being able to measure your chemical footprint – and the other is the CFP survey, which asks companies 20 questions that are scored to 100. This means we can look at what companies that are doing in terms of footprinting, and the characteristics of the companies that score better in the survey.

On chemical footprinting, there are only two companies that have explicitly said they’re committed to reducing their chemical footprint: Gojo Industries and Walmart. Gojo Industries has committed to a chemical footprint reduction of 50% by 2020, and Walmart has committed to reducing the chemical footprint for its consumable products (personal care and cleaning products) by 10% by 2022.

Looking at the survey, I divide companies up into two categories: ‘design for health’ companies and ‘traditional’ companies.

‘Design for health’ companies include the likes of Seventh Generation and Ecover, whose products from their very founding are designed for health. Their mission is to use the safest ingredients and the most sustainable materials in their products.

If we talk about ‘traditional’ companies like Walmart, Becton Dickinson, Johnson & Johnson and Levi Strauss... they are currently trying to shift their practices on to a design for health pathway. We measure businesses on this pathway against five attributes:

1. Corporate policy: senior management sign off on a chemicals and materials policy that explicitly advances the goals of avoiding chemicals of concern and selecting safer and healthier chemicals and materials. Companies that have a strong corporate policy tend to score better in the survey, as it’s going to ripple through the organisation.

2. Full chemical ingredient information: this means a company has a commitment to knowing all of the chemical ingredients in its products. It requires setting up systems for tracking, either using a third party or creating its own to work with suppliers.

3. Supply chain engagement: there’s a deep level of supply chain engagement, a way of connecting with suppliers. Systems need to be in place (eg random product testing, requiring your suppliers to do testing at approved labs, etc).

4. Footprint measurement: this means setting goals to measure progress. For example, a company recognises that it shipped 1m kilos of chemicals of concern in its products in 2016, and can see that this has been reduced to 800,000 in 2018.

5. Transparency: telling the world! If a company has a corporate policy, it can tell the world by releasing it publicly. By being transparent, it's allowing the public to hold it more accountable and it is upping its level of accountability. For a publicly traded company transparency is even more important, as it involves communicating to shareholders.

Q) How is the challenge of minimising the footprint different for smaller companies?

It varies between two types of company: formulated products companies and manufacturers of articles.

The general assumption has always been that moving into safer chemicals is really hard for smaller companies. But for ‘design for health companies’ producing formulated products, it’s straightforward, because they have always been doing it this way and they are constantly improving on it.

But when you look at article companies, these follow a very clear trajectory: large companies scored better on all measures, medium-sized companies were next, then small companies. The challenge is that when you’re a small company manufacturing articles, you generally don't think your product is made of chemicals. And getting information from your suppliers is much more difficult.

One of the major barriers to accelerating this work is that companies only want to report on success, versus being open to reporting where they are at on the journey.

We highlighted Becton Dickinson in last year's report – they talk about “being transparent about where we are on our journey”. And for ‘traditional’ companies, continuous improvement is a pathway to success. I think the willingness to be honest about where you are on the journey is really important, because you can talk positively about it and show where you’re moving forward.

Q) Are certain sectors more engaged than others?

Companies in building, retail, electronics, apparel, consumer goods, healthcare and toys have been sectors that have been active in participating in the CFP survey. They are all brands that are consumer facing or institutional purchaser facing. And they are the ones that have the highest risk of having hazardous chemicals in their products.

We use the term chemical risk in terms of companies’ liabilities, and we use three Rs:

1. Regulatory risk: this is pretty clear – shifting regulations.

2. Reputation risk: we use the example of Lumber Liquidators whose stock dropped 75% two years ago when NGOs found formaldehyde above regulatory limits in its products. The CEO resigned over this issue. It's the most dramatic example of reputational risk.

3. Redesign risk: Sigg, which makes water bottles, is a Swiss company that had a US subsidiary. Back in the 2000s when BPA became a big issue, Sigg was capturing much of the market because it sold aluminium bottles. But it actually had BPA linings in its products, and didn’t tell its customers. This was found out and was a huge issue. Major retailers in the US took their products off the shelves and the Sigg subsidiary went bankrupt. It’s an example of not redesigning in a timely fashion.

Q) Why are you looking forward to speaking at Safer Chemicals in Products? What can delegates expect?

I will be presenting on two topics, GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals, and the Chemical Footprint Project. And on the Chemical Footprint Project, I’m excited and delighted to be presenting for the first time the results from the 2017 survey. Clean Production Action is very delighted to be presenting these results with Chemical Watch.

When it comes to GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals, we’re very excited to be discussing the adoption and use of GreenScreen® as the chemical hazard method across many different sectors, and its value for companies in terms of screening for chemicals of concern and identifying safer alternatives.