Regrettable substitution: Swapping the devil you know for the devil you don't

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Elliot Moore/flickr

Regrettable substitution. Informed substitution.

The first sounds like a problem – and it is. The second is the way you avoid the first.

In the world of consumer products made from mixtures of chemicals – baby lotion, shampoo, cleaners, laundry soap – chemists seek ingredients that are effective and feasible. What they too often don’t also consider are the hazardous properties of the chemical and its risk to people.  This is in part because most chemists are not trained in toxicology.  Further, many of the biological interactions between us and the ingredients in everyday products we use on our bodies and in our homes are only now being understood.  As our understanding has grown, groups such as EDF have called for the removal of some of the more concerning chemical ingredients from store shelves.

But it’s not as simple as just taking a hazardous chemical out of a product.  While in some instances a chemical of concern can be simply eliminated, in many cases these chemicals perform a key function in a product and a replacement chemical is necessary.  If the replacement isn’t carefully considered for its own potentially deleterious effects, you can end up exchanging a problem for a problem – resulting in a regrettable substitution. 

The good news is that the path forward for identifying and making informed choices about substitutes has become a lot clearer. 

Recently, EDF together with BizNGO, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute and the Lowell Center for Sustainability released The Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment with the support of over 100 representatives of business, universities and NGOs.  This broad consensus around simple, solutions-based principles, signals a growing commitment to moving hazardous chemicals out of the supply chain and driving informed, safer innovations. 

Alternatives assessment is a process for identifying, comparing, and selecting safer alternatives to chemicals of concern based on certain chemical features including hazard, performance, and economics.  The six “Common Principles” establish key elements of informed decision-making about the chemicals in a product.  Reduce hazard. Minimize exposure. Use best available information. Require disclosure and transparency. Resolve trade-offs. Take action.  They are “common principles” because they are shared by a broad, diverse group of individuals from academia, industry and the NGO community.

In September, Walmart became the first retailer to call for informed substitution as suppliers phase out of chemical ingredients of concern in products it sells. It is EDF’s hope that the Commons Principles will be used to meet this commitment, and inform the efforts of other retailers and product manufacturers.  Smart and informed decisions guided by the Commons Principles can make products safer and regrettable, hazardous substitutions a thing of the past.

This post first appeared on EDF's  Health blog.

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Michelle Harvey

Michelle Harvey

Michelle Harvey, based in Bentonville, AR, is a senior manager for retail in EDF's Corporate Partnerships Program

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