“Sustainability is about being multidisciplinary. If you only look at a narrow slice or issue, you will not find a sustained solution.” — Tony Kingsbury
Chemical expert Tony Kingsbury’s Friday afternoon breakout session on his leading-edge research into chemical evaluation tools and certifications asked us all to consider the products around us and how much we truly know. The session led attendees through his journey to uncover what an overload of chemical evaluation tools means for experts, companies and consumers.
Kingsbury started with his motivation in undertaking a study of the vast landscape of chemical evaluation tools, which stemmed from his vision for combining the rigorous science of academic toxicology with the market-driven demand for information.
With companies such as Target and Walmart adopting sustainable product standards and priority chemical lists and protocols, Kingsbury saw a need for consolidating and understanding what exactly qualifies under each metric. How can companies that may have limited toxicology or chemical knowledge make educated decisions about their products without a standardized system for evaluating their chemical components?
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For the study, Kingsbury and his team evaluated 32 tools (out of 60+ potential tools) on a number of criteria including the number of hazard endpoints, transparency, cost, ease of use, process review, and many others (interested parties can find the results of his study in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Integrated Assessment and Environmental Management).
For readers looking to skip to the good part, the highest-scoring tools were Targeted Risk Assessment (TRA), Stoffenmanager, Lowell Center LCSP, and Greensuite, but many of the lessons from the session came from understanding the underperformers: Did tools simply list acceptable chemicals are describe the criteria which rejected certain chemicals? Did the tools take applications into account (Ex: whether a chemical is used as a carpet backing or a cosmetic will have vastly different toxicology impacts)?
Kingsbury and his team identified two additional areas where many tools underperformed: accounting for data gaps and establishing a formal review process for their methodology.
Taking a step back from the scientific comparisons of the tools, Kingsbury took a deeper dive into how these tools can add value for companies looking to make more informed product decisions. Retailers all likely want tools that are simple, decisive and trustworthy, but also — and perhaps most importantly — they want to keep selling products. With risks associated with nearly every chemical (even water), an overly hazard-wary approach will quickly diminish the range of possible components to nil. So what can retailers do?
Kingsbury closed by laying out a vision for the future of these chemical evaluation tools — one that combines the LCA’s approach to balancing multiple elements of human and environmental impact with the safety, hazard, risk and alternatives assessments possible through chemical evaluation — to create an “uber tool.” This next-generation tool should be capable of holistically assessing and fully understanding the importance of chemicals in keeping us safe and healthy while understanding their environmental impact to move the needle towards sustainable products. This, he feels, will help identify, develop and promote the use of appropriate information that will inform improved choices, not eliminate options.
The conversation spilled over long after the session formally ended, with questions from attendees ranging from better understanding the government’s role to how we can drive consumer education.