Safer chemicals 101: get informed - the problem
What is the problem?
Chemicals are the building blocks of every manufactured product. A single product can be made with a handful of ingredients to hundreds — depending on the product’s complexity. Unfortunately, some product chemicals, such as perfluorinated compounds, BPA or phthalates, can leach from products and are routinely detected in indoor air, food, drinking water, house dust and — most disturbingly — our bodies.
Some of these chemicals have been linked to diseases and disorders including Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and heart disease. Many other widely-used chemicals lack adequate safety data. For these, it may take years, as was the case with asbestos, to fully understand their impacts on our health and environment. The traditional toxicology mantra has been “the dose makes the poison,” but we now know that is not true in many cases. For endocrine disruptors, chemicals that mimic our hormones, low levels can cause more harm. Considering that the average person encounters many products every day, the exposures add up — exposure to a variety of chemicals and potentially repeated exposure to the same chemical.
Why should my company care?
There are three reasons chemicals should matter to your business: consumer trust, business risk, and investor scrutiny.
A company’s top priority is to sell what consumers want, but consumers are consistently losing confidence in companies over concern about product ingredients. In 2013, one study demonstrated that 87 percent of global consumers seek out beauty and personal care products made without harsh or toxic chemicals. Eighty-five percent of global consumers sought the same thing for cleaning products. In 2018, another study found that one third of U.S. adults had actively bought personal care products based on ingredient safety. Regarding food, over 50 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed in 2018 were concerned about chemicals in their food. Consumer concern doesn’t end with the products put in or on our bodies; trust is failing across the board, including around toys, jewelry and clothing. Millennial consumers are especially interested in the health and sustainability impacts of the products they buy. These aren’t nameless consumers. They are your customers, your employees, your family and friends, and you.
In addition, consumers are increasingly aware of harmful chemicals. Environmental health advocates are adept at educating consumers about potentially harmful chemicals. Though governments may be slower to act on growing scientific evidence, environmental health advocates are providing a direct line to consumers.
Companies are under increasing scrutiny regarding the use of toxic chemicals as chemical research becomes more accessible. Twenty-first century chemical testing methods, such as high-throughput screening, are reducing the cost and time of understanding the health impacts of chemicals. Modern science is also revealing the importance of low-dose exposures, timing of exposure (e.g., childhood), and considering the variability of impacts across sub-populations. As a result, authoritative bodies such as IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) or NTP (the U.S. National Toxicology Program) continue to identify more chemicals in commerce as chemicals of concern.
Today, regulatory agencies around the globe are applying the new science to rulemaking. Over the last twenty years, the European Union has accelerated its restrictions and bans of certain chemicals, through vehicles like REACH, ROHS and the Cosmetics Directive. Other nations around the world like Korea, Brazil and China are implementing their own REACH-modeled programs. Canada is executing a multi-year Chemicals Management Plan to assess thousands of priority chemicals. In the U.S., the Lautenberg Act of 2016 overhauled the 40 year old Toxic Substances Control Act, while states like Washington and California have for years spearheaded their own chemicals regulations to protect citizens. The trend of regulation will only continue and more chemicals of concern proposed for restrictions and bans.
Getting caught violating chemical regulations can be costly. A 2014 UNEP study showed that five major retailers paid $138 million in fines over a three year period for hazardous waste violations due to product disposal containing regulated chemicals.
Investors are starting to recognize that the use of toxic chemicals increases business risk. The Investor Environmental Health Network, formed in 2009, is a collaboration between investment managers and NGOs worried about the financial and environmental burden of toxic chemicals in commerce. Its membership manage $55 billion in assets. The Chemical Footprint Project, which launched in 2016, measures corporate progress to safer chemicals and lists investment firms like Boston Common Asset Management, Trillium Asset Management and BNP Paritas as signatories, as well as major purchasers like Walmart, CVS and Kaiser Permanente. Signatories’ total assets under management and purchasing power are worth over $2.8 trillion. Finally, in 2017, Dow Jones Sustainability Index began incorporating how a company manages its chemicals usage into the evaluation of a company’s sustainable enterprise.
What are the business benefits?
Adopting a safer chemicals strategy is key to staying competitive in today’s market. A safer chemicals strategy helps you anticipate regulatory changes rather than react to them. By minimizing risks, you can reduce costs in the long-term. A safer chemicals strategy also helps you build a positive reputation with investors, the media, and your employees as a company that is forward-thinking, innovative and caring about its customers. It helps you achieve a competitive advantage against your competitors, winning consumers who want brands and products they can trust.
What are the environmental benefits?
Eliminating toxic chemicals from products benefits the health of people and the environment: improved health of our families and friends, of consumers, workers, and communities; and improved health of wildlife and the habitats they depend on.