Walmart says no to nasty chemicals, sort of
Triclosan. Formaldehyde. Toluene. Diethyl phthalate. Nonylphenol exthoxylates. Butylparabens. Dibutyl phthalate. And propylparaben.
These are the eight chemicals that Walmart has asked its suppliers to both list on their products and find alternatives for in future.
If you check on a personal care or household items in the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep database (a very handy tool), these eight are chemicals of concern in common products you might use on your or your family's skin or body. So there's good reason to get them out of personal care products.
How deep does Wal-Mart's commitment go? Well, the company has been working with the Environmental Defense Fund since 2013 to figure out how to provide more ingredient transparency for the products on its store shelves.
That's admirable, and part of a trend for large consumer companies looking to be more sustainable.
But it's interesting that when big companies are getting a trendy, new product to market, it seems to take them less than half the time that it does to get a harmful chemical out of an existing product.
It isn't always easy to find safe alternatives for cosmetics and personal care products, that I know, and Wal-Mart worked with the EDF to prioritize certain chemicals, like formaldehyde and toluene, that have been linked to serious diseases. Just these eight are found in over 90,000 products from 700 manufacturers.
In essence, however Walmart isn't truly making its suppliers to get rid of these 'high priority chemicals' (HPCs). It is making them list the chemicals on packaging by 2018, while working to switch to alternative options.
The EDF has assessed Walmart's progress and says,
"Walmart reports a dramatic reduction in the total weight of PCs [priority chemicals] and HPCs going out the door. The total weight of HPCs dropped by 95% and PCS by 45%. The more than doubling of reduction of HPCs suggests that focusing attention on a subset of chemicals accelerated action."
Walmart assesses both the actual weight of the high priority chemicals and priority chemicals in products as well as the 'frequency of use' which is more or less the number of products containing the chemicals.
But here's the not-so-great news, which none of the recent mainstream news reports contained:
"Unfortunately, it appears that suppliers who use HPCs are largely still using them, though the aggregate mass has dropped. Overall, the percent of products containing HPCs dropped by only 3 percentage points (to 16%), while the percent of suppliers using HPCs increased slightly (to 39%). Meanwhile, the percent of products containing any Priority Chemical actually went up one percentage point (to 80%)."
This means suppliers may be using less of the nasty stuff, but they haven't found good, safe alternatives that they are willing to switch to.
EDF still gives Walmart kudos for putting in place policies and systems that track progress over time.
However, if you want to buy safer personal care products, it seems like a better plan to bypass Walmart and check on some of the EWG verified products that have started reaching some store shelves.