The list of what Walmart has designated high-priority chemicals includes formaldehyde, triclosan, toluene, diethyl phthalate, nonylphenol exthoxylates, butylparabens, dibutyl phthalate and propylparaben. Several of the substances are commonly found in cosmetics, fragrances and household products.
The high-priority substances were selected because they contain “certain properties that can affect human health or the environment,” according to Walmart. Formaldehyde, for example, is a carcinogen found in building materials, paints and even some cosmetics, while toluene is used in paint thinners, nail polish and fragrances.
The sustainable chemistry policy published by Walmart in 2013 was the result of several years of work between the retailer, its suppliers, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and nonprofit advisers. It committed to three major goals:
• To increase the transparency of product ingredients.
• To promote safer formulations for products.
• To achieve the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice certification for Walmart private label products.
According to Walmart, the policy covers about 90,000 items made by 700 suppliers. Product categories impacted include health and beauty aids, household chemicals, cosmetics and skin care, baby care, pet supplies and paper goods.
In February 2014 Walmart followed up its actions by sending a letter to suppliers asking them to reduce certain substances in personal care, cleaning and beauty products. When the company issued its ninth annual Global Responsibility Report in April, for the first time it detailed some of the progress made in implementing the policy.
The report claimed that use of the eight priority chemicals had been reduced by 95% by volume weight in products it sold in the U.S. The retailer attributed part of the success to its ability to determine which suppliers use the majority of the high-priority chemicals. However, the percentage of products that contained the priority chemicals had fallen only three percentage points to 16%, while the percentage of suppliers using them had increased slightly to 39%.
“Walmart has made major strides regarding the commitments set forth in its policy,” commented the EDF in a blog. “Equally notable, it has set in place effective systems to measure and track progress over time — an ability that cannot be underestimated.”
Rival Target Corp. has followed a different approach to the issue of product safety and sustainability. Last year it published a list of more than 1,000 substances that it is encouraging vendors to eliminate, offering them incentives to do so.