Walmart effect: Retailers lead the way on chemical safety at a critical time

Elizabeth Sturcken

Just as the Trump administration tries to hollow out a new law that protects consumers from toxic chemicals, some unexpected champions of safer products are stepping up to the plate: retailers.

In late September, Walmart released an ambitious update to its 2013 chemicals policy. Two other retail giants – Target and CVS – are also among a growing number of brands that are scaling up chemical safety.

These corporations are showing, with tangible and measurable actions, that their consumers demand safe and healthy products. Toxic-free consumer products, in other words, are good for business.

Walmart: Tackles 55 million pounds of chemicals

The world’s largest retailer rolled out a chemical safety policy three years ago that covers nearly 90,000 formulated products in the beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning categories sold in the United States.

This policy, which health experts within my organization helped Walmart craft, has now been broadened to reduce by 10 percent the footprint of all chemicals of concern the company has identified in these product categories. The new target is equivalent to 55 million pounds.

It’s a massive undertaking considering that Walmart owns more 5,400 stores in the U.S. alone and depends on 700 global suppliers that make the products under evaluation.

The company will continue to publicly report its progress on an annual basis to show that the improvements it promises consumers are, in fact, happening.

We see evidence that Walmart means business: By achieving a 96-percent reduction in its first chemicals policy, the retailer was ranked among the top 10 in Fortune Magazine’s 2017 list of companies that Change the World.

Target: Unveils chemicals policy for 600 stores

In January, Target announced a new chemicals policy that applies to all products sold in its 600-some stores and to its operations. The nation’s eighth-largest retailer for sales, Target is focusing its attention on removing PFCs and flame retardants from apparel by 2022.

PFCs have been linked to developmental changes, liver toxicity and lower sperm count. Certain flame retardants have been linked to neurodevelopmental disorders, cancer, reduced fertility and more.

Target is also targeting by 2020 five classes of chemicals of concern, such as formaldehyde donors and phthalate, from products in its beauty, baby care, personal care and household cleaning departments.

To meet these goals, the company is investing $5 million in green chemistry innovation while promising to share progress with us on an annual basis.

CVS: Will remove chemicals from 600+ products

In April, CVS updated its list of chemicals restricted from use in its private-label baby, beauty, personal care and food products.

The company, today the nation’s fifth-largest retailer, will remove parabens, phthalates and formaldehyde donors – chemicals that slowly release formaldehyde into products over time – by 2019 from more than 600 products. CVS also said it will focus on additional product categories and chemicals of concern in the future.

These companies drive change

The impact of these voluntary policies cannot replace a strong federal toxic safety law, but they demonstrate leadership and prove the business case for action.

Consumers today are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that toxic chemicals in products have a direct impact on their health, with constant new research connecting exposure to serious conditions and diseases.

Will they soon have a fully toxic-free experience? Probably not, but we’re making progress – even in the current political climate. The actions these retailers take give us hope.