Why the chemical footprint movement is good for public health, business, and the environment

Walmart announced recently that it has removed 95 percent of the 10 highest priority chemicals targeted by its pioneering Sustainable Chemistry Policy. This is striking progress, as Walmart announced its goal to eliminate these chemicals just two years ago.

It is a reminder of the power of major retailers and manufacturers to reduce business and consumer risk and enhance public health through targeted chemical management. 

Walmart characterized its activities as reflecting its commitment "to improving our chemical footprint." The embrace by America’s largest retailer of chemical footprinting language represents endorsement of an emerging, critically important sustainability concept.

Chemical footprinting can be defined as the process of assessing progress toward the use of safer chemicals and away from chemicals of high concern to human health or the environment. Investors in North America, Europe and Australia managing more than $2.3 trillion in assets publicly support the Chemical Footprint Project, which has developed an assessment tool for analyzing and scoring corporate chemical footprints. 

Investors are seeking a more effective way of comparing public companies on the extent to which they reduce chemical hazards and realize the business benefits of moving towards safer chemicals and materials; chemical footprinting analytics provide such a tool.

Investors’ aspirational goal is having chemical footprinting assessment and public disclosure become as widespread as now well-established carbon footprinting and more recent and growing water footprinting.

To promote it, investors have reached out to major commercial suppliers and aggregators of ESG (environmental, social, governance) data for investor analytics to add chemical footprint information to their repertoire.

As a general rule, current ESG data for chemicals tend to focus mainly on emissions, spills, reputational risks associated with chemical incidents, and fines, penalties and litigation. While important, such data mainly reflect "end of pipe" risk management failures.

They do not capture very well the risk reduction and other positive business benefits of front-end chemical selection and product design choices that can very efficiently eliminate potential sources of human health risk from chemical hazards in both common home, office and automotive products and in manufacturers’ discharges to the environment.

For many investors, how well companies manage their chemicals, as well as other environmental and social concerns, reflects how well companies are managed overall.

Concern for ESG is becoming increasingly mainstream in the U.S. For example, in 2015, BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management firm with $4.5 trillion assets under management, declared ESG "is not just about saving the planet or feeling good. We view ESG excellence as a mark of operational and management quality."

Driving the point home, BlackRock added, "It can be costly to underestimate environmental risks. Just ask BP’s equity and debt holders." Lumber Liquidators provides a more immediate chemical example. Its stock dropped roughly two-thirds, its CEO resigned and it faced an onslaught of litigation following public disclosures in 2015 of formaldehyde risks from its flooring products.

Defining chemical footprinting

The term "toxic footprint," a precursor of "chemical footprint," initially was elaborated in a series of GreenBiz articles in 2009 on benchmarking corporate chemical policies and practices.

The term was created to foster enhanced disclosures about corporate management of this scientifically complex issue, but the downside quickly became apparent: No corporate staff would feel comfortable using the word "toxic" in public communications.

Nor did the term adequately capture the potential benefits of moving towards safer chemistry. Using instead more balanced "chemical footprint" language, shortly thereafter environmental non-profit Clean Production Action, research institute the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and sustainability consultancy Pure Strategies launched the Chemical Footprint Project.

The Chemical Footprint Project evolved from a set of Principles for Safer Chemicals developed by Clean Production Action’s BizNGO group, businesses and NGOs working collaboratively to advance and disseminate safer chemicals policies and practices, and from the BizNGO Guide to Safer Chemicals. GreenBiz published what likely was the first article in the sustainable business media on "chemical footprinting" in 2013.

Project founders, to buttress their own extensive policy and scientific skill-sets, convened a steering committee that included retailers Target and Staples; health care providers Kaiser Permanente, Partners Health Care and Dignity Health; investor representatives Trillium Asset Management, Boston Common Asset Management and the Investor Environmental Health Network; and environmental nonprofits U.S. Green Building Council and Environmental Defense Fund.

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series by the author in regard to why the chemical footprint movement is good for public health, business, and the environment. Next up: Chemical footprinting: The new normal of corporate sustainability disclosure.


Dr. Richard Liroff is IEHN’s Executive Director. Dr. Liroff is author or editor of a half dozen books and more than fifty articles on environmental policy, including numerous articles on the business case for safer chemicals policy. His previous affiliations include World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Law Institute, and the Brookings Institution. He has worked on environmental issues domestically in the United States and internationally. Immediately prior to founding IEHN, he had lead responsibility at World Wildlife Fund for policy development on hormone disrupting chemicals. Dr. Liroff holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Northwestern University and a B.A. from Brandeis University. For more information, visit IEHN.org

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The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "The Economic Argument for Environmental Protection," are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. Source: GreenBiz.

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