This is the third article in a series on US retailers’ efforts to curb the use of legal, but potentially harmful, chemicals in household products. The first, by editor-at-large Marc Gunther, discussed whether retailers are acting as regulators. The second explored Target’s new policy aimed at making products healthier.
Can one store change the chemicals industry?
Maybe. A new sustainable products policy at Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, may kick consumer product manufacturers hard enough to rid toxic ingredients from their supply chains.
The policy, the centerpiece of a host of new sustainability initiatives announced in September, will take effect next month. That’s when the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company will start monitoring product ingredient lists for 10 “high priority” chemicals that it will push its vendors to reduce or eliminate.
In 2015, suppliers will have to disclose product ingredients online, although they won’t have to disclose whether their products contain the prioritized chemicals (or any added to the list) on product labels until January 2018.
Exactly what Walmart wants to remove isn’t clear, though. The company won’t publicly disclose what chemicals are on the list, and it doesn’t plan to report on the program’s progress for two years.
Still, Walmart’s move – together with a chemicals initiative its chief competitor, Target, announced in October – could have a bigger impact on determining what chemicals show up in consumers’ homes than dated US regulations.
One cosmetics safety activist calls the combination of Walmart and Target’s policies – which differ significantly – a “major shift” in the retail space that could push manufacturers to comply simply because of the enormity of sales the retailers generate.
“Essentially as Walmart goes, so goes the nation,” says Margie Kelly, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “I actually would argue with you that it has to be one of the top 10 business stories of the year.”
Walmart’s new policy applies to household cleaners, personal care, beauty products and cosmetics.
“The way Walmart thinks about it is our customers expect good, safe products at prices they can afford, that are produced in a responsible way,” says Rob Kaplan, Walmart’s director of product sustainability. “And they’re expecting more about transparency and understanding where their products come from and how they’re made.”
Getting suppliers on board
Some suppliers already appear to be on the same page. Also in September, Ohio-based consumer products giant Procter & Gamble said it would eliminate triclosan and a phthalate known as DEP from its products, but didn’t confirm it made the move because of Walmart’s new policy.
Even as Walmart remains opaque about the restrictions it plans, Kaplan says suppliers need to be “on board” with its goal of restricting and eliminating high-priority ingredients – and says Walmart needs to work cautiously with vendors to maintain their cooperation.
“Ultimately we want to reduce and eliminate and restrict these chemicals, and that’s our goal, Kaplan says. “We think that we need our suppliers to be on board with that and we don’t want to get ahead of that process.”
Dara O’Rourke, founder of the GoodGuide product-safety-rating tool, says retailers are on the “front line of pressures from consumers” about chemicals of concern. Just pledging to avoid 10 chemicals may not be sufficient, he added.