Mike Schade and Mike Belliveau
Published 5 years ago.
About a 11 minute read.
Brands should take note of a new retail sustainability trend that responds to growing consumer demand for healthier products and full ingredient disclosure.
Major retailers are increasingly adopting policies that restrict the use of
hazardous chemicals in the products and packaging they buy and sell, as well as
across their global supply chains. This trend unleashes new opportunities for
innovation and business development for suppliers of reformulated products and
packaging that rely on more sustainable chemistry and materials.
Scientific evidence implicates products and packaging as a daily source of human
exposure to toxic chemicals linked to chronic disease, disability and early
death. Yet, the federal government is rolling back
regulation of those products
and putting chemical industry staff in charge of government programs that are
supposed to protect our families from chemical hazards.
It’s incumbent on major retailers to step up and fill this major regulatory void
to protect consumers and meet the rising consumer demand for safe and healthy
products. Retailers have the power and moral responsibility to eliminate and
safely replace toxic chemicals to “mind the store.”
And there is a strong business case to act. Retailers that are not meaningfully
managing hazardous chemicals in their supply chains face major reputational,
legal, financial and regulatory risks that can be costly to their bottom line.
Brands that don’t respond to retailer calls for safer chemistry may lose market
share to competitors that do.
Over the past few years, our campaign’s report Who’s Minding the Store? — A
Report Card on Retailer Actions to Eliminate Toxic
Chemicals has set out to
evaluate the progress that has been made and challenges that remain in the
retail marketplace to address toxic chemicals. In November, we published our
third annual report card evaluating the safer chemicals programs of forty of
North America’s largest retailers, from major home improvement stores to grocery
chains and big box stores.
We benchmark retailers on 14 key
criteria that are
essential elements of a safer chemicals sustainability program, from whether a
company has a robust safer chemicals policy to whether a retailer publicly
reports quantifiable reductions and the elimination of harmful chemicals in
their products, packaging or manufacturing. On our website, you can download
the full criteria,
which provide an important framework for best in class approaches for safer
It should be on the reading list for every retail sustainability professional.
Retailers are certainly paying attention. Over the past few months, three major
retailers — Amazon, Walgreens and Rite Aid — announced safer
chemicals policies for the first time ever. It’s no coincidence that these
policy announcements came just one month before the release of our 2018
retailer report card.
By publicly benchmarking businesses, we are driving a race to the
top in retail to
transform the marketplace to healthier toxic-free products and packaging. For
example, the eleven retailers that we scored in the first report card in 2016
have improved their average grade from a D+ to a C+ since then. Another eighteen
retailers first graded in 2017 bumped up their grade from D to a D+ over the
past year, on average. 21 out of the 29 retailers (72 percent) that were
evaluated in both 2017 and 2018 improved their score over the last year.
We found that Walgreens, Rite Aid and Amazon were the most improved
retailers, with each adopting sweeping chemicals policies between September and
Let’s take a look at the policies of all three retailers and how they and other
businesses can continue to improve.
In early October, Amazon
launched a new chemicals
making a significant improvement compared to our first evaluation of the company
in 2016, when it earned an F. This year, Amazon earned a grade of C, scoring
51.75 out of 135 possible points and ranking 14th in overall points scored among
Amazon’s new chemicals policy includes a Restricted Substance List (RSL)
targeting 54 chemicals of concern such as phthalates for elimination in Amazon
private-brand baby (shampoo, lotion, wipes), household cleaning (all-purpose,
kitchen, and bathroom cleaners), personal care (shampoo, sanitizers,
moisturizers) and beauty (make-up) products. The company is working to phase out
chemicals that are carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants, PBTs
(persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic) and other systemic toxicants. Amazon
noted that it began its reformulated efforts with private brand products since
it has the most control over these products.
The policy does not yet address other private-brand or brand-name products on
Amazon.com, though the company stated that it will work to add additional
product categories and “work to achieve fuller ingredient disclosure on its
Private Brand product detail pages” in 2019.
On transparency, the policy states: “Our goal is to make product health and
sustainability data as easy for customers to access and interpret as price and
customer reviews. This is why we are working on website features that will make
it easier for customers to access comprehensive information about product
ingredients and third-party certifications. We hope that making this information
more readily available for customers will encourage additional brands to move
away from potentially hazardous chemistries in their products and adopt safer
chemistries.” Amazon cites Safer Choice, Made Safe, Green Seal and
as examples of third-party standards it is focused on.
Since the company launched its chemicals policy, it went even further by
globally banning the sale of all deadly paint
containing the hazardous chemicals methylene chloride and NMP, becoming
the 11th North American retailer to do so in 2018. And more recently, Amazon
subsidiary Whole Foods has taken initial
on toxic PFAS in food packaging, following a report we published that found
these chemicals hiding in takeout containers and other food contact materials.
In 2018, Rite Aid earned a
letter grade of B+, scoring 81.5 out of 135 possible points, ranking seventh out
of 40 retailers in overall scoring; it more than doubled its 2017 score of 36.5
In 2017, Rite Aid staff disclosed to us that the company was beginning to
develop a safer chemicals program that included a Beyond Restricted Substances
List (BRSL) applying to several chemicals of high concern (CHCs)
in its private-label products. Rite Aid’s goal was to eliminate these CHCs
from its formulated private-label products by 2020.
Rite Aid significantly improved its grade this year by adopting a new safer
and a significantly expanded RSL in September 2018, developing a range of
accountability measures, reporting continued progress on eliminating CHCs from
its products, and stating an explicit preference for ingredients on the EPA
Safer Chemical Ingredients List.
Rite Aid has set public, quantifiable goals for reducing and eliminating CHCs in
its products. Its policy states: “In 2016, Rite Aid committed to eliminating
eight chemicals of high concern from its own-brand formulated products by 2020.
These chemicals include:
formaldehyde, toluene, butylparaben, propylparaben, diethyl phthalate, dibutyl
phthalate and nonylphenol ethoxylates.” The company also states that it is
expanding its RSL to include 69 chemicals total, will expand its policy to apply
to brand-name formulated products and will encourage suppliers to avoid
ingredients not just on its RSL, but on the six authoritative lists on the BPC
stewardship list, which is made up of thousands of chemicals of concern. The
company plans to eventually extend its chemical policy to cover all of the
products sold in its stores.
Rite Aid also reports on metrics in implementing these efforts. In September
2018, the pharmacy chain stated: “The number of suppliers producing own-brand
products for Rite Aid that contain these [initially listed CHCs] has dropped by
64 percent.” The company went on to state the number of own-brand products
containing any of these initial restricted chemicals has decreased by 54
percent, and it is on track to meet its elimination commitment by 2020. Rite Aid
plans to begin reporting additional metrics starting in 2019, particularly
progress towards the 100 percent elimination goal and the number of new products
launched in a year that are free of the initial eight CHCs.
In its 2018 policy, Rite Aid states that it will also encourage suppliers to
publicly disclose all ingredients online or on pack, including the constituents
of fragrance and other generic ingredients.
Walgreens earned a B-
grade, scoring 70.5 out of 135 possible points, and ranking eighth out of 40
retailers. This represents a significant improvement from 2017, when it received
The company’s improved score is due to the release of its new safer chemicals
including public, quantifiable goals and a public RSL. As an initial step, the
policy applies largely to private-label products in the baby, beauty, personal
care and household cleaning categories. Walgreens has set a goal of eliminating
all of the chemicals on its RSL in these products by the end of 2021 and has
already made strides in reformulating sunscreens so that a majority of the
formulations do not contain two chemicals of concern. The company also created a
list of chemicals that it is monitoring and “over time…looking to restrict
and/or minimize across [its] product portfolio.”
The company also requires private-label suppliers to disclose all intentionally
added ingredients, including fragrance components. Suppliers are encouraged to
look to EPA’s Safer Chemical Ingredients List in finding safer alternatives and
to obtain third-party safer chemicals certifications for their products.
In its policy, Walgreens states: “In moving to eliminate [CHCs], we encourage
suppliers to select ingredients identified as Safer Chemicals by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safer Choice program, or to use EPA Safer
Choice criteria or ChemSec safer alternatives marketplace to evaluate and select
While all three retailers have made notable progress, there are still
opportunities for improvement, which also rings true for other top retailers.
Here at some ways each of the retailers can improve their chemicals management
policies and implementation plans in the year to come:
Amazon should set clear public timelines for reducing, eliminating and
safely replacing chemicals on its new RSL, and should publicly report on
metrics in implementing it annually. In 2019, Amazon should expand its
chemicals policy to other chemically intensive private-label product
categories — particularly electronics, apparel and food — and establish
goals and timelines to restrict toxic flame retardants, phthalates and PFAS
chemicals in these products, packaging, food service ware and supply chains.
The company should also expand the policy to restrict highly hazardous
chemicals in brand-name products sold on Amazon.com, and expand the scope of
its RSL for private-brand formulated products to apply to the same
categories of brand-name products sold on Amazon.com.
Rite Aid can make more progress by setting public quantifiable goals for
reducing and eliminating all chemicals on its expanded RSL, and on the six
authoritative lists that make up the BPC stewardship list for both
private-label and brand-name products. Rite Aid can also improve by
requiring suppliers to conduct alternatives assessments to avoid regrettable
Walgreens can improve by strengthening accountability measures, including
conducting its own testing and requiring suppliers to test in third-party
approved laboratories. Walgreens should also expand the scope of its policy
beyond the categories currently covered and require suppliers to conduct
alternatives assessments to avoid regrettable substitutions. One low-hanging
fruit opportunity for Walgreens would be to stop selling lead-based hair
dyes, which you can still find on the company’s
All three retailers should also become signatories to the Chemical Footprint
and pilot it with key private-label suppliers.
We are excited to see how each of these companies continues its journey to safer
chemicals. We are looking forward to seeing how they consider our
recommendations and improve and expand their policies in the year ahead.
In the year ahead, we expect other major retailers to join this growing trend
and develop comprehensive policies to address toxic chemicals. We urge all
retailers to adopt safer chemicals policies, fully disclose the ingredients of
their products and packaging, and substitute hazardous chemicals with safer
solutions. They can get in touch with us to
learn how to get started.
With a federal government that’s failing to protect us from dangerous chemicals,
it’s time for retailers and brands to leverage their market power and influence
to drive the development of safer chemistry solutions and products.
Published Jan 27, 2019 7pm EST / 4pm PST / 12am GMT / 1am 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.