Walmart As Government: Screening Chemical Product Formulations To Protect Public Health


Delinquent dioxane isomers seen lurking in darkened store aisles: Walmart to the rescue! Or not. Image credit:Wikipedia
GreenBiz has an update on the significant progress Walmart has made with managing hazardous product ingredients in the interest of public health. Back in May of 2009, we are told, Walmart introduced its suppliers to a chemical ingredient screening software package called GreenWERCS.

The plan, as Walmart sees it.
Product formulators, personal and home care brands mainly, are told by the big boxer to feed chemical data to the software beast. (Presumably, those which refuse risk losing market share.) Algorithms in the GreenWERCS software rake over all entered data to analyze composition and report hazards of retailed 'chemical' product formulations. Walmart buyers flag products with ingredients that are legally codified, in Europe or America, as:


  1. Persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic substances (PBTs);

  2. Carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxicants (CMRs); and

  3. Potential hazardous waste.

  4. Probable endocrine disruptors.

So far so good. Here's the money quote from GreenBiz:
Bold emphasis added by me.
While the customer is unlikely to ever see the GreenWERCS analysis, over time it should result in better consumer products from which to select. Moving forward, Environmental Defense Fund [environmental NGO headquartered in Washington DC] will advocate for the Walmart Chemical Intensive Products Sustainable Value Network to encourage reformulation with chemicals certified as green through U.S. EPA's Design for Environment (DfE) program, develop a list of emerging chemicals of concern to watch for and devise strategies to encourage ingredient disclosure.
Regulatory caveat.
Comprehensive and sustained use of this software screening tool is not a sure thing unless the European REACH program stays on schedule. (European regulators are on the leading edge of understanding and managing chemical risk. Long-needed upgrades to US chemical laws - Toxic Substances Control- and Resource Conservation & Recovery Acts mainly - have been on the Congressional "slow track" for years, and are likely to remain so.) Should chemical industries, even those which do not supply the consumer products sector, delay and defer REACH, Walmart's success would be curtailed.

The problem with proprietary "black box" software - openness.
This program only loads "intentionally added ingredients." From what I have read so far, it appears that Walmart does not require of chemical reaction byproducts created after formulation of a product (such as 1,4 dioxane), of low level "residuals" potentially originating from 2nd or 3rd tier chemical ingredient suppliers, or of "intentionally added" ingredients, if those ingredients present below legal reporting thresholds in the country of sale.

In the USA, for example, ingredients which remain below 1% by weight do not, by law, have to be reported. Hence, unless corrected by further information, we can only assume that a GreenWERCS collaborator would not be obligated to enter materials, below 1% by weight of the formulation, as doing so would put a supplier in the position of presenting information that conflicts with material safety data sheets, "MSDS," for example.

Clorox and Sierra Club set the bar high.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Clorox Green Works product line is that the formulator decided ahead of launch to report all ingredients and not look for legally allowable exclusions in what is reported. Only if Walmart decides to manage their program in a similar manner, will it add value beyond what Federal law currently requires.

Who do we trust?
Finally, the Walmart program carries a very large "trust me" factor. It puts Walmart, it's suppliers, a little known software developer, and self-selected NGO confidants - not the Federal government - in the business of 'regulating' formulation choices. Thus, Walmart's program, while very well intended, surely, operates beyond the legally defined mandates of EPA and FDA. It puts EDF and whomever else joins Walmart at the table in the role of oversight body. I am not at all certain that Congress will find this acceptable over the long term.

If I am wrong about any of the above, comment away by all means.

Subtexts of the past and future.
The migration of environmental and public health oversight responsibilities from Federal government to states, and to the private sector (whether at Clorox or Walmart or 7th Generation), as well as the erosion of former US primacy in proactive environmental management, all happened for a specific reason. It happened because lobbyists representing industry interests and various free market Think Tanks have badly over-reached by constantly encouraging Congress to pull the reins in on EPA & FDA. This went beyond 'tossing the baby out with the bath water.' Goats were assigned to tend the cabbage patch. There was talk of drowning government in the bathtub.

What's lost may be lost forever.
Libertarians may have lost a few battles to the current EPA but may still win a long-running war against government regulation, should Walmart carry this forward as planned. Private sector management of chemical exposure risk could thus could become the norm: a trend US consumers would just have to make the best of.

Bypassed by this prospective future, however, would be the consumers, small businesses, and designers who'd have no access to the decision process, not even to the underlying software criteria. There will be no Freedom of Walmart Information Act. to open doors. They will just be left out. For an in-depth examination of portions of this issue, see Bisphenol A: How Wal-Mart Became the New FDA

One potential unintended consequence of such a future - this one would not likely sit well with suppliers - would be a creeping replacement of science with urban legend, to gain green market share among the superstitious or rumor captivated. Seem like a stretch? See Common Eco-Myth: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) Causes Cancer for an example of what might one day slip into a decision process if serious scientists are not engaged along the way and held politically accountable. This gets to the issue of who does, and who does not, get to sit down at the risk management decision table with Walmart and EDF. And, it gets to the issue of who owns and controls GreenWERCS.

Update
(This short addendum has an even more conspiratorial tone, I admit. But its' fun.)

Years from now, a clever entrepreneur could aggregate years worth of GreenWERCS reports and, comparing entries with screening decisions, model the formulary characteristics most likely to be accepted by large retailer(s) chasing the latest green market fads. Using their model to formulate new products, the probability of acceptance by retailer(s) would be mapped out in advance. Would such modeling be just good business, or a pilfering of intellectual property rights? You decide.

More posts about product stewardship for home and personal care products
Ecover Responds to the Organic Consumers Association 1,4 Dioxane Test and TH Post
Clorox Green Works Reaches 40 Million Dollar Market Share In First Year
Introducing Clorox's Green Works Cleaners
Burt's Bees is Purchased by Clorox
We Hear Ya: Answers to Questions about the Sierra Club and Green ...

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