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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
How UL Environment Is Helping Industry Develop Credible Claims Around Product Chemical Safety

On Tuesday evening, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Angela Griffiths, Director of the UL Environment Advisory Services group in the Activation Hub at SB ’15 San Diego. She shared with me the newest research and recommended best practices for assessing product health risks associated with chemical content.

Chemical safety is on top of consumers’ minds these days, particularly around personal care products. UL Environment began engaging in the issue about five years ago, but at the time, industry wasn’t ready to change practices or examine how to respond to environmental concerns. In the last couple of years, however, ULE has received incrementally more requests for innovative approaches to assessment.

The global standards leader will now research and develop new best practices for evaluating hazards. The reason why certain brands turned to UL Environment was the proliferation of red lists — which may be different for retailers, purchasers, and suppliers. Particular brands could have upwards of 2,000 red-listed chemicals, and manufacturers are having an increasingly hard time managing them all. While it’s nearly impossible to keep up with every product on the market, new chemicals are hitting red lists daily.

In just in three years, there’s been a noticeable shift in public perception and demands: Walmart and Target drove much of that. Manufacturers are feeling the pressure and looking for compromises. Issues of transparency can be more challenging than developing red lists because they’re more science-based and harder to communicate. Griffiths is a scientist by training, and she believes ULE’s assessments are a more robust way of assessing safety – which can’t result in substitutions.

There are risks attached to making an erroneous green product claim. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission revised its Green Guides, the agency’s core set of guidelines to help marketers avoid making misleading claims. The Guides are now more specific and prescriptive, making it easier for the FTC to prosecute greenwashers. Industry has asked ULE to help develop credible claims, while not revealing trade secrets. While the public and NGOs might not generally trust industry, the neutral organization can cull data from products to assess risk while keeping information confidential.

The European approach is more robust than the American approach, as “consumers might be more demanding in Europe — regarding information, risk and safety,” Griffiths said. She thinks Asia will be interesting to observe as it develops and invests in North American brands.

With the sharp increase in demands for transparency and safety, UL Environment fills the need for being the holder and assessor of this knowledge. At the end of the day, it’s really about risk and the opportunity costs for sustainability.

“We don’t want to have situations where red lists are thwarting innovation,” she said.