This is the first article in a series on US retailers’ efforts to curb the use of legal, but potentially harmful, chemicals in household products.
Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”
Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.
So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?
In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates, 1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.
But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.
What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.
All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands. In September, Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, published a new policy on sustainable chemistry, in which it promised to try to reduce, restrict and eliminate “approximately ten chemical ingredients”. Three weeks later, Target unveiled a Sustainable Product Standard that will rate thousands of personal care, baby care and beauty products, as well as household cleaners, based on the “sustainability of ingredients, ingredient transparency and overall environmental impact”.
Unsurprisingly, suppliers are responding: Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, promised in September to eliminate diethyl phthalate, a solvent and plasticizer, and triclosan, an antimicrobial ingredient, from its products – even while insisting they are perfectly safe. Both ingredients have been linked to reproductive and developmental harm in animals in laboratory studies.
This week, Guardian Sustainable Business will take a closer look at Walmart, Target and chemicals. We plan to explore how and why Walmart and Target have become what some are calling “retail regulators” and explain their plans. They are taking on a relatively new role for companies, and a tricky one. After all, they don’t employ scientists. They aren’t accountable to the public. And they aren’t transparent. Indeed, Walmart won’t even identify the 10 chemicals that it is seeking to reduce or eliminate, perhaps because it doesn’t want to call attention to the products it now peddles that contain them.
Regulation by retail
It must be acknowledged, up front, that there’s something odd about Walmart and Target taking it upon themselves to become arbiters of complex scientific disputes about chemical safety. Walmart sells cigarettes, which are incontrovertibly harmful, and justify doing so by saying the products are legal and that their customers want them. The same, of course, could be said about all the products they sell now.