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A New Approach to Healthy Materials

January 23, 2023

Anyone who plays a role in choosing products – a retailer, manufacturer, purchaser, product developer, owner, builder, or specifier – can help reduce the use of harmful chemicals. Choosing healthier materials not only protects the environment, your customers and employees, it’s also good for business. It can improve market differentiation, avoid brand liability, and support compliance with government regulations.

We know that avoiding chemicals that have health or environmental concerns is not always easy. That’s why we need the entire supply chain to embrace the “essential-use approach” which addresses this problem head-on. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Inventory Ingredients. If you don’t already have one, we recommend you create an inventory of intentional ingredients, residuals, and impurities present at 100 ppm or higher by working with your supply chain. Enterprise supply chain management tools, disclosure initiatives, and compliance declarations may be helpful. A third party assessor* can help you through this process.
  2. Identify Hazards. Screen your list of chemicals to identify and eliminate the well-known bad actors. To avoid many of the most harmful chemicals and possible regrettable substitutions, be sure to check out the Six Classes Approach to Reducing Chemical Harm. A third-party assessor* can help you identify and classify known and potential hazards through a chemical hazard assessment.
  3. Apply the Essential-Use Approach. At any point in your chemical assessment plan, you can reduce your use of chemicals of concern by applying the essential-use approach. Ask any one of these questions about individual chemicals, or classes of chemicals of concern:
  • Is the function of the chemical necessary for the product? (You might be surprised how many harmful chemicals are in products when they aren’t necessary for performance.)
  • Is use of the chemical the safest feasible option? (Safer alternatives are being developed all the time!)
  • Is use of the chemical justified because such use in the product is necessary for health, safety, or the functioning of society? (If in doubt, move it out!)

Start with whichever question is easiest and stop when you reach a ‘No’ answer. ‘No’ means the chemical is not essential for that use and you can take the necessary steps to remove it. While redesigning materials requires time and resources, it is valuable for all the reasons noted above. In addition, removing unnecessary harmful chemicals from your ingredient inventory can reduce your need for chemical hazard assessments, which are sometimes lengthy and expensive.

If you answered ‘Yes’ to all three questions,  the chemical can be deemed ‘essential’, in which case you should develop a time-bound plan to find a safer solution, which may be a different chemical, material, product, or process. Get creative! Safer alternatives can also be identified and certifications obtained by third party assessors.*

The essential-use approach can be adopted at many points in the supply chain. Of course, earlier is better, starting with chemical manufacturers, who can invest in making safer building blocks for products. Product manufacturers can also design safer products and processes, and eliminate non-essential uses. Retailers and purchasers can choose products with safer chemicals, require suppliers to provide greater transparency about the chemicals they use, and eliminate non-essential uses of chemicals of concern. All of these actions improve the circular economy.

Check out our recently published paper on how to apply the essential-use approach, which gives examples of how it has been working for businesses and governments, and practical tips for how to implement the approach. We recommend engaging technical experts within industry, government, or science when needed, pushing for transparency in chemical uses, and sharing your journey (see Keen’s recent example) so that we all benefit from each other’s success.

Questions or thoughts on essential-use approach? Contact [email protected]

*Third party assessors (and associated methodologies) can help with inventories, chemical hazard assessments, safer alternatives and certifications. Examples include GreenScreen, ChemForward, Tox Services, Scivera, ToxStrategies, Cradle to Cradle, and Safer Choice.