Wal-Mart and suppliers work with EDF to reduce toxic chemical use

The Environmental Defense Fund said it is working closely with Wal-Mart Stores and its suppliers to reduce the number of toxic chemicals used in everyday household products.

“It's the largest and most ambitious effort to phase out hazardous chemicals from common household goods, and a prime example of big an impact we can have when we work with major companies,” noted Sarah Vogel, director of environmental health for the EDF.

Wal-Mart consumer product suppliers received a letter two months ago from the retail giant detailing new requirements on phasing out a list of toxic chemicals found in goods sold in Wal-Mart stores. The comprehensive initiative is by far the largest and most ambitious of its kind, according to Vogel. She said it reflects a growing trend in which consumer and wholesale purchasing power are combining to change the chemical makeup of the products we see on store shelves and bring into homes.

The new Wal-Mart chemical policy guide is available at this link on the retailer’s website.

Michelle Harvey, senior manager for corporate partnerships with the EDF in Bentonville, said the policy targets about 10 chemicals of concern in consumer products for replacement with safer ingredients. Harvey notes that this change chiefly affects non-food "consumables," products like baby shampoos, lotions and air fresheners. The policy also expands ingredient disclosure to the public. The effort also requires leadership from Wal-Mart through a commitment by the retailer to align their cleaning products with the EPA's Design for the Environment Safer Product Labeling program.

The partners spent several years developing the policy and deciding how to implement the unprecedented measures across a sprawling global supply chain with hundreds of suppliers. Vogel said the solution had to be robust, credible and transparent. 

For now the policy covers chemical intensive consumable products sold at Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club stores, including health and beauty aids; cosmetics and skincare; baby care; pet suppliers and household laundry and cleaning products. The partners plan to expand the list in the future.

Harvey noted in her recent blog that the responsibility now falls on the suppliers to deliver the goods, and on Wal-Mart who will have to hold suppliers accountable. She said the EDF is keeping a close watch on the progress.

The Wal-Mart policy targets chemicals that are classified as a carcinogen, mutagen, reproductive toxicant, or is persistent bioaccumulative and toxic. They added any chemical that has produced evidence of probable serious effects to human health or the environment to the “Priority Chemical List.”

Harvey said Wal-Mart has asked suppliers of formulated products to disclose their ingredients since 2006. In the fall of 2013, Wal-Mart zeroed in on the initial list of chemicals it would target for reduction, restriction and elimination.

She said suppliers are being told if their product ingredients contain any of the targeted chemicals, but the retailer has not yet released the list to the public. Harvey said suppliers disclose product formulations, using a third-party reporting system designed to protect proprietary information while still providing the necessary data. 

She said by this time next year, suppliers will have to publicly disclose each product’s ingredients (though not the formulas themselves). To make sure a chemical isn’t replaced with another toxic substance, Harvey said Wal-Mart has taken the step of announcing that “all suppliers are expected to reduce, restrict and eliminate use of priority chemicals using informed substitution principles” that transition to safer chemicals or non-chemical alternatives.

Wal-Mart is not trying to become the next Whole Foods or a local co-op, Harvey said.

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“Its chemicals policy is designed for a mainstream market, and it is going to be carried out in concert with the company’s famously relentless emphasis on everyday low prices,” she explained.

Wal-Mart has said it wants to collaborate with the suppliers on this issue. The retailer also has its own private label product formulations to tweak because it is not exempt from the new chemical policy. Harvey said some big suppliers including Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson have recently joined longtime front-runners like Seventh Generation in tackling the challenges.

“While there might be some grumbles behind closed doors, the incentives to comply with the policy are considerable. In the end, there’s nothing like a public spotlight on measurable goals to engage the competitive spirit,” Harvey notes.

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