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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
More Major Retailers Are Saying ‘Forever Chemicals No More’

To paraphrase Voltaire: “With great market power comes great responsibility.” Retail market leaders are setting the pace in the transition to safer chemistry in their products and packaging. Their actions add up to saying, “Forever chemicals no more.”

On December 11, 2018, Whole Foods Market made a dramatic announcement: Effective immediately, all prepared food and bakery packaging that tested positive for long-lived, potentially toxic chemicals were removed from its nearly 500 stores. The company said: “We’re actively working with our suppliers to find and scale new, compostable packaging options.”

Following stakeholder dialog, this market leadership anticipated a report by environmental health advocates that tested and found high levels of fluorine, indicating the likely presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in some take-out containers, bakery or deli paper and single-use plates from five major grocers.

PFAS are a large class of chemicals widely used for their non-stick, grease-proof, water-repellent and stain-resistant properties. With multiple carbon-fluorine bonds, the strongest in organic chemistry, many PFAS are extremely persistent, meaning they don’t readily break down in the environment. Dubbed the “forever chemicals,” some will likely persist for thousands of years. They’re also very mobile, meaning they readily escape from products during manufacture, use and disposal; and move far and wide through the air, drinking water and food supply.

Virtually all humans on the planet have been exposed to PFAS, some of which can build up to high levels in our bodies and wildlife. Some PFAS are also highly toxic in very small doses, and they have been linked in human and animal health studies to immune problems, testicular and kidney cancer, thyroid disease and other serious health effects. But too few PFAS have been thoroughly tested for safety before entering the market.

In a classic case of “regrettable substitution,” government regulatory agencies allowed some PFAS to be replaced by other PFAS, raising new concerns about human exposure and environmental contamination by persistent pollutants.

But in response to growing consumer alarm, market leaders are moving far beyond compliance with minimal federal standards and getting out in front of states such as Washington and Maine , which are restricting PFAS. And retailers are helping to set the pace: We’ve previously reported in Sustainable Brands on the value of benchmarking retailer progress toward safer chemicals in their products and packaging.

Retailers phase out ‘forever chemicals’ in multiple product categories

In the last year, retailers have taken significant actions to avoid PFAS as a chemical class in a variety of products and packaging. According to the fourth annual Who’s Minding the Store? retailer report card, several new commitments to prevent PFAS pollution were rolled out in the wake of Whole Foods’ announcement:

Food PackagingAhold Delhaize, the nation’s fourth-largest retail grocer (whose brands include Stop & Shop, Giant Foods, Food Lion and Hannaford) adopted a first-ever chemical policy to phase out PFAS and other chemicals of concern in the packaging of its private-label products. Albertsons, the US’ second-largest grocery chain, has begun to make progress in reducing the use of PFAS in packaging for certain prepared foods and bakery goods such as cake plates that had tested positive for likely PFAS treatment. Panera Bread has begun an aggressive effort to eliminate all PFAS use and will complete its phase-out in baguette bags in 2020. Trader Joe’s has also asked its suppliers to avoid PFAS.

Carpeting & Rugs — In September, The Home Depot announced that it would cease purchase of any carpets and rugs containing PFAS for resale in the US and Canada by the end of 2019. Another major home improvement retailer, Lowe’s, pledged to do the same as part of its new chemical policy.

Furniture & TextilesIKEA set the industry pace by ending all use of PFAS in furniture three years ago. In 2019, Staples, the major office supply retailer, adopted its first chemical policy, which includes a PFAS phase-out in furniture, textiles and disposable foodware.

Other Products — Market leaders in the apparel industry are beginning to offer PFAS-free rain gear in the search for nontoxic, durable water repellency. And pressure is mounting to end the use of PFAS in high-performance ski wax.

How is all this progress possible? Brands have crafted a new value proposition that deems that chemicals that virtually never break down in the environment no longer have a place in commerce. We can no longer presume the innocence of forever chemicals until all the safety data is in. By then, it would be too late to prevent persistent pollution.

As a practical matter, some uses of PFAS are not essential and can be easily dropped. In other cases, the same functions provided by PFAS — resistance to oil and grease, water and stains — can readily be substituted by safer alternatives. And where alternatives are not yet available, innovation will commercialize safer substitutes in response to market demand.

Benchmarking retailers on toxic chemicals

For four years running, the Mind the Store retailer report card has proved an effective tool for benchmarking the development and execution of comprehensive safer chemicals policies. In the last year alone, two-thirds of 43 major retail chains reported improvements, with seven companies lauded for being “most improved.”

Together, these companies sell products with packaging at more than 190,000 locations in North America, as well as online. Such retailer actions reverberate across global supply chains. Market pull matters.

But beyond benchmarking progress, the report card has unleashed a competitive race to the top among major retailers. In the run-up to the November 2019 report card, several retailers announced new or significantly expanded corporate chemical policies — including Dollar General, Sephora and Staples, among others.

And the action continues. On January 9, 2020, Taco Bell announced a new sustainability commitment to remove PFAS and other chemicals of concern from its consumer-facing food packaging. This will improve upon the F grade that its parent company, Yum! Brands, Inc., received in 2019 and 2018, especially if similar actions are taken by its other brands — Pizza Hut and KFC.

To paraphrase Voltaire: “With great market power comes great responsibility.” Retail market leaders are setting the pace in the transition to safer chemistry in their products and packaging. Their actions add up to saying, “Forever chemicals no more.”