Mike Schade and Mike Belliveau
Published 4 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
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
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
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
in Sustainable Brands on the value of benchmarking retailer progress toward
safer chemicals in their products and packaging.
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 Packaging — Ahold
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
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 & Textiles — IKEA
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
in the search for nontoxic, durable water repellency. And pressure is mounting
to end the use of PFAS in high-performance ski
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
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.
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
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
Staples, among others.
And the action continues. On January 9, 2020, Taco Bell announced a new
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.”
Published Jan 20, 2020 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Mike Schade is the Mind the Store Campaign Director at Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
Mike Belliveau is the Executive Director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and is a Senior Advisor to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.