Why did Walmart take the unusual step to tackle chemicals?

Michelle Harvey

Walmart recently announced progress on its groundbreaking Sustainable Chemistry Policy, a 2013 plan that set the stage for some 700 suppliers to rethink how they make more than 90,000 home and personal care products.

Result: The world’s largest retailer drove out more than 11,000 tons – 23 million pounds, or 95 percent by weight – of prioritized chemicals from that group of products in less than 30 months.

A lot still remains to be done. But this story is a good one and Walmart’s leadership, sustainability team and buyers – deserve credit for what they accomplished.

What’s perhaps equally extraordinary is that they chose to do so at all.

Sustainability wins are typically also economic wins. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and your energy expenses drop. Address water use in drought-prone areas, and you avoid costly supply chain disruptions that cause price spikes and make customers unhappy.

But chemicals? The business case can be thin to none.

Changing chemicals is difficult and risky

Even when the science says it’s time to make a change because one or more legal ingredients we once believed to be safe turn out not to be – changing a product formula without changing the product can be difficult. It also takes time: on average 18 to 24 months.

Product ingredients are the smell, the feel and the way a product cleans or softens or does whatever it’s supposed to do. Change it, and you risk sales if customers reject the alternative.

There are few-to-no marketing wins here, either. Despite the fact that pretty much everything and everybody is a chemical mixture, people don’t want “better” chemistry. They want no chemistry, and keep looking for chemical-free products that don’t exist.

Walmart decided to tackle ingredient chemistry anyway. It begs the question: Even with years of persistent nudging from Environmental Defense Fund, why would Walmart do this?

Three plausible business reasons 

One answer is that customers – along with scientists, advocates and bloggers – were really starting to voice concerns over chemicals in products, so it made good business sense to respond.

Another is that the timing was right. A lot of companies were already making formulation changes, so a request for improvements could be achievable.

Also important to note is that Walmart and other retailers have paid hefty fines over improper product disposal. So eliminating regulated substances from product ingredients could reduce the risk of more penalties.

All three are plausible business reasons. You’ll have to ask Walmart why to get their answer.

But what I’ve experienced – and the reason I’ve stayed in Bentonville for almost 10 years – is what’s stated in Walmart’s sustainable chemistry policy itself: “Walmart and Sam’s Club believe that customers/members should not have to choose between products that they can afford and products that are better for them and the environment.”

The people with whom I’ve worked at Walmart, especially on product chemistry, live by that statement.

Idea rippled through industry

When Walmart released its policy, the company didn’t just call for the ouster of the high-priority chemicals. Walmart took a leadership stance.

Walmart committed to making the product ingredients transparent to customers. The company embraced informed substitution, which means it’s intent on making sure that ingredients targeted by the new policy are replaced with better ones.

And for its private brand products, Walmart set its sights on Safer Choice, a voluntary labeling program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that requires every ingredient to be as safe as possible. Target’s chemicals initiative was announced shortly afterwards.

The ripple effect spread across the personal-care products industry, with companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive following with their own chemicals-focused efforts.

So let’s stop a moment and give credit where credit is due – to the people who chose to make things better, whatever their reasons.

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