Why Levi’s, J&J, Other Major Firms are Using Chemical Footprinting to Manage Risk

Chemical Footprint Project

by | May 20, 2016

Chemical Footprint ProjectChemical management and using safer chemicals is top of mind for corporations as consumers and investors increasingly demand transparency about what’s in products and stricter regulations require more in-depth chemical assessment, reporting and safety strategies.

Case in point: the US Senate and House are yesterday reached an agreement on an overhaul of US chemical safety laws, which will update the 40-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act.

As US lawmakers move closer to new federal chemical regulations, dozens of major companies including Levi Strauss & Co., Seagate Technology and Johnson & Johnson have participated in a first-of-its-kind effort to publicly benchmark corporate chemical management.

The Chemical Footprint Project yesterday published its inaugural report that provides insights into how leading companies manage chemicals in their products and supply chains, as well as recommendations about how all companies can better manage these issues.

“Investors, institutional purchasers, and brands increasingly want to know all the chemicals in their products, whether those chemicals are hazardous to human health or the environment, and whether safer alternatives are available to chemicals of high concern,” lead author of the report and executive director of Clean Production Action Mark S. Rossi told Environmental Leader.

Environmental nonprofit Clean Production Action, research institute The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the sustainability consultancy Pure Strategies founded the Chemical Footprint Project in 2014.

“A comprehensive chemicals management strategy positions companies to reduce their chemical risks and to maximize their opportunities for growth,” Rossi said. “The CFP informs companies on how to reduce their regulatory, reputation, and redesign risks, thereby capturing new markets and increased market share, increasing customer loyalty and reducing regulatory costs.”

Last year, 24 businesses both small (millions in annual revenue) and large (tens of billions in annual revenue) agreed to participate in the Chemical Footprint Project and to receive a score on their corporate chemicals management practices. Twenty-two agreed to be named publicly. In addition to the three named above, other participants included: GOJO Industries, Dignity Health, Beautycounter and California Baby, among others.

The report analyzes participants’ responses to a 20-question survey regarding chemicals management across four categories: management strategy, chemical inventory, footprint measurement, and disclosure and verification. The report doesn’t, however, identify the companies with their respective points scored. It instead lists the companies as A through X (see chart).

Key findings include:

  • The 29 percent of firms with board-level oversight or senior management incentives performed better overall than firms with no such accountability.
  • Companies need comprehensive policies. Without policies that address chemical hazards in manufacturing, supply chains and packaging — in addition to products — companies face liabilities and chemical risks.
  • Disclosure lags practice. Across every category (management, inventory, footprint, and disclosure) companies have more chemicals management practices in place than they share publicly. For example, 83 percent have a legally restricted substances list, but only 17 percent of those companies make that list public.
  • Companies whose entire product portfolios are based on minimizing or eliminating chemicals of high concern performed well above average.
  • Chemical footprint measurement is new and challenging. Before they can reduce their chemical footprints, companies need to know the chemical ingredients in their products and identify chemicals of high concern.

Rossi says companies that measure their chemical footprint ultimately reap business benefits like increased sales and market share, higher rates of customer loyalty and employee satisfaction, and lower compliance costs.

The report highlights Levi’s as a chemical management and sustainable chemistry leader. The company set a goal of zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, and began developing its Screened Chemistry Program in 2013.

The program’s goal is to screen chemicals against human health and environmental toxicity hazards and identify safer alternatives. It uses methodologies including the EPA’s Safer Choice Program and GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals.

As it moves from a pilot to full implementation, Levi’s says it will require all of its suppliers to use its preferred chemicals list. To help other companies adopt similar chemical management initiatives, Levi’s has shared its Screened Chemistry Program with other apparel brands.

“We believe that innovation in this realm, both on our own and together with our garment manufacturers and chemical suppliers, presents significant business opportunities, as well as huge potential for advancing environmental sustainability in the apparel industry,” said Bart Sights, Levi’s vice president, technical innovation.

Last week Levi’s won an EPA Safer Choice Partner of the Year award for using Safer Choice criteria and showing that factories “can make clothing for the global market using safer chemicals.”

The report also suggests opportunities for companies to improve their chemical management. These include: establishing comprehensive chemicals, policies, engaging senior management; knowing the chemicals in your products, anticipating future regulations and increasing transparency.

Considering the massive numbers of so-called chemicals of high concern — these are chemicals government agencies and NGOs say pose a threat to human health or the environment — managing and mitigating chemical risks and potential liability from chemicals throughout the production process makes financial sense. The European Union’s REACH Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern includes more than 160 chemicals. The state of California’s Candidate Chemicals List, developed as part of its Safer Consumer Products regulations, includes over 2,000. These lists indicate chemicals that are likely to be regulated in the future.

But the first step is chemical footprinting. As Rossi says, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

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