Walmart tackles its “top ten”

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In September 2013, Walmart announced a plan to phase out ten hazardous chemicals found in many of the products it sells. Now, Walmart has notified its suppliers they will have to move toward safer formulations for household cleaning, personal care, beauty and cosmetic products. This follows recent news that manufacturing giants like Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, and retail powerhouses like Target have announced similar initiatives.

Arlene Blum, Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a Visiting Scholar in Chemistry at UC Berkeley said, “When big retailers like Walmart choose to offer safer products, that is a really fast way to effect change. This will help shift the marketplace in the right direction and potentially have a huge impact on our health.”

Walmart’s Sustainability Hub states “From among Walmart Priority Chemicals, Walmart has identified a subset of approximately ten ‘Walmart High Priority Chemicals’ as a starting point for suppliers to reduce, restrict and eliminate using informed substitution principles,” defining informed substitution as “the considered transition from a chemical of particular concern to safer chemicals or non-chemical alternatives.”

The plan also addresses the need for greater transparency so that customers know what is in the products they buy. Starting in January 2015, suppliers must provide online ingredient disclosure for products sold at Walmart, and beginning in 2018 must disclose Priority Chemicals on packaging.  In 2016, Walmart will publicly share information on how the shift to greater transparency and safer products is progressing.

For business reasons Walmart will not publish its list of priority chemicals or products that contain them, but it appears they will prioritize chemicals deemed by the US EPA, the EU, state agencies and other regulators to be endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens, developmental/reproductive toxicants, and persistent bioaccumulative toxins.

To assure the makers of name-brand products that store-brand “knockoff” versions cannot be created, “suppliers’ proprietary formulations will remain strictly confidential and will not be shared with Walmart.” The WERCS, a compliance software firm, will act as intermediary between Walmart and its suppliers to preserve confidentiality.

Fragrance products appear to present a particular challenge. A separate webpage is devoted to the question “Does online public disclosure include fragrances?” The trade secret status of some fragrance ingredients may necessitate an exemption from disclosure requirements, and the chemical industry trade group American Chemistry Council, is “working with Wal-Mart to advise the retailer why beauty and household products need certain chemicals to last longer in a medicine cabinet or retain a fragrance,” according to the San Jose Mercury News. Concerned consumers can look for fragrance-free products.

Meanwhile, other major retailers are exploring alternate approaches. Chemical & Engineering News reports that Target “has devised a point system that will ‘reward’ products that contain zero hazardous ingredients. Insiders say incentives could include desirable placement on store shelves. Whereas Walmart has identified 10 least-wanted chemicals, Target says it is going after compounds on several existing lists, such as the European Union’s list of ‘substances of very high concern,’ which add up to more than 1,000 chemicals.” That’s good news as there are many thousands of unregulated chemicals in consumer products.

Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes webinar series, examines chemicals associated with the adverse health effects that Walmart is beginning to address (endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, mutagens, developmental/reproductive toxicants, PBTs). The series looks at plasticizers, antimicrobials, solvents, fluorinated chemicals, and more. It discusses green chemistry solutions, and asks a key question: when it comes to chemicals in consumer products, Do We Need It?

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