Consumers are increasingly interested in the impacts of chemicals on their lives, and government and companies are key players in addressing this issue.
Chemical management is becoming relevant to a variety of sectors, from retail to healthcare to electronics to consumer products. Tools and guidance for companies exist, but scientific information about a number of chemicals is still incomplete.
Companies can begin their chemical-related efforts by developing management approaches and by addressing key chemicals that sector leaders are already targeting.
“When you look at problematic chemicals, the question is how do you evaluate the alternatives so you don’t go from the frying pan into the fire and you don’t have regrettable substitutions.” —Mark Rossi, Clean Production Action
“This is all driven by the consumers in a way that maybe we haven’t really seen in the past … We’ve seen a rise in citizen science; for the first time, consumers actually have access to information that they didn’t have before. They know what’s in their bodies, which is really powerful.” —Florence Williams, Author
“We do take risks every day … It’s about knowing what those risks are, as individuals whether we’re consumer or workers, and making informed decisions on that.” —Kevin Dooley, The Sustainability Consortium
Williams began the session by describing the testing she has undergone to understand the chemicals present in her body. She highlighted the need for governments and companies to reduce health impacts from chemicals of concern and indicated that it can be difficult for consumers to reduce their exposure on their own.
Rossi then highlighted several key resources for understanding the impacts of chemicals of concern, including a tool for assessing specific chemicals (the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals) and a guide for how companies can implement chemical management programs (the Guide to Safer Chemicals).
Dooley pointed out that chemicals of concern are relevant not only for consumers but also for workers in product supply chains. He reinforced the importance of manufacturers knowing what chemicals are in their products, which requires supply chain transparency. Dooley also summarized the large data gaps that exist in understanding chemical impacts; as he explained, “Most of the chemicals used in products have not been deeply characterized in terms of their safety.”
Niemtzow asked the panelists to share what they see as the baseline—and the leading edge—of chemical management practice. Both Dooley and Rossi cited regulatory compliance as the baseline, though this is complex given varying international requirements. Rossi highlighted five key aspects of leadership: knowing what chemicals are in products and supply chains, disclosing chemical use information to the public, assessing chemical impacts, managing for continuous improvement, and supporting public policies and voluntary initiatives. Taking a consumer perspective, Williams then raised the need for companies to build consumer confidence through transparency and proactive development of greener alternatives.
When asked about the biggest barriers to company action on chemical management, Rossi cited the lack of information as a significant barrier. In addition to difficulties in obtaining information on product contents from suppliers, concerns about sharing trade secrets can also be a problem. Even when companies obtain product content information, according to Rossi, several challenges remain: understanding the chemicals, whether they pose a hazard, and—if substitutes are needed—what alternatives are available.
Also responding to the question about barriers, Dooley recognized that scientists now have a much greater ability to understand chemical impacts than they did in previous decades, but it is still difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation in materials and chemicals. He reinforced that companies should start with the science currently available while also supporting efforts to expand our understanding of chemical impacts.
Niemtzow asked a final question about the collaborations needed to address this challenge. Williams highlighted the increasing cooperation between citizens and scientists, and Dooley and Rossi both emphasized the need for collaboration but highlighted difficulties in building trust and in securing the organizational resources necessary for deep engagement. Reflecting that this issue is at the early adoption stage, Rossi indicated that collaboration is necessary to get to scale and to disseminate best practices in chemical management.
In the Q&A portion of the session, one attendee highlighted the importance of focusing on chemical management, not only in the supply chain and during product use, but also at end of life. Rossi responded by reinforcing that chemicals of concern should be removed in the product design stage, which reduces potential hazards during end of life.
Another attendee asked how business leaders, especially those without chemical or toxicology expertise, can address this issue. Dooley raised the idea that the circular economy has the potential to be a major growth area over the next 10 to 15 years; if companies see the business opportunity in product recovery, they will be able to more effectively address issues like chemicals of concern. In response to the same question, Rossi reinforced the idea that sourcing and procurement systems can be set up to enable effective chemical management.
Lastly, an audience member asked for successful examples of industry-wide collaboration on assessing chemicals and identifying better alternatives. Panelists highlighted a number of initiatives, including collaborations by the Phosphorus, Inorganic, and Nitrogen Flame Retardants Association and the Durable Water Repellency Task Force, as well as collaborations organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment Program.