Getting toxics out of household products

EDF and Walmart work together to make retailer's products safer

Walmart customer shopping for products

Photo: Walmart

When Walmart — the world’s biggest retailer — makes a decision, it can have a huge impact on the environment.

That’s why, since 2006, we’ve partnered with the company to reduce its environmental footprint. One challenge we’ve worked closely on is reducing toxic chemicals in everyday products.

How do toxic chemicals get in products at all?
For forty years, U.S. law on chemicals was so ineffective that the vast majority of the roughly 80,000 chemicals available for use have never been tested for potential threats to people or the planet. (See how potentially harmful chemicals are used.)

EDF worked for years to reform the law, and we’re now making sure the reforms are implemented well.

Why work with retailers on this problem?
A retailer like Walmart can move ahead of the law, pushing suppliers to update their products more quickly.

And they can also address products like cosmetics, which are covered by other laws that have yet to be reformed. (More about our strategy to leverage the supply chain).

What did Walmart set out to do?
In 2013, Walmart published its Sustainable Chemical Policy. EDF worked closely with Walmart as it developed the policy. It covers household cleaning, personal care, and beauty products sold at Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the U.S., and includes three major commitments:

  1. Improve transparency. Customers deserve to know the ingredients in the products they buy. Walmart called on suppliers to disclose all product ingredients online.

  2. Provide safer products. Walmart called on its suppliers to “reduce, restrict and eliminate” certain chemicals, focusing on eight high-priority ones. The chemicals must be replaced with ones that are known to be safer, a practice known as “informed substitution.”

  3. Increase private-brand “Safer Choice” offerings. The new EPA Safer Choice program is a voluntary program similar to Energy Star. To carry the Safer Choice logo, a product’s ingredients must pass the program’s health and environment criteria.

The policy went into effect in January 2014.

What has Walmart actually accomplished?
To date, suppliers have reduced the eight high-priority chemicals by 95%, measured by weight, and other targeted chemicals by 45%. This translates to 23 million pounds and 400 million pounds respectively.

Walmart is the one company in the world that could drive change at this level. With EDF’s help, they set up effective tracking systems so they could measure their impact. And they did this all in less than 24 months.

On improving transparency to consumers, more than half of suppliers report they disclose product ingredients online for all of their products.

Still, much work remains to be done to fully meet the policy. While the overall volume of the high-priority chemicals is vastly lower, 15% of covered products still contain at least one of these chemicals. And Walmart reports that it has hit snags in increasing its private brand “Safer Choice” offerings.

What’s next?
For Walmart (and their suppliers), it’s essential to keep reducing and eliminating the use of potentially harmful chemicals and fulfill the goals of their policy. They can also extend the policy to cover more types of products and more stores around the world.

Walmart’s approach is working so far because it hits on every one of EDF’s five pillars of leadership for companies moving toward safer chemicals. And that framework also suggests specific next steps for Walmart to maintain the momentum it has created.

For EDF and our supporters, it’s essential to keep using both partnerships like this one and government policy to reduce exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals. For example, the new law does not cover potentially hazardous, unregulated chemicals in food—like BPA in food cans.

We must keep demanding safer products from retailers, get stronger rules in place and strive, as Walmart is doing, to go beyond simple compliance with the law.

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The team here at EDF will continue to monitor progress, both by retailers like Walmart and regulators like the EPA. Sign up to be called on when this and other environmental opportunities need your support. (See our privacy policy).