Walmart Pressures Suppliers To Phase Out High-Hazard Ingredients From Consumer Products

Taking a page from the European Union's chemical risk management playbook, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's largest retailer, has, per Dow Jones News (subscription service) "singled out three commercial chemicals it wants phased out among its suppliers. Companies will have the option to not take part in the program, but Wal-Mart says it will reward firms that find alternatives to the compounds it wants out of circulation". On Walmart's product ingredient 'gray list' are the pesticide compounds propoxur and permethrin, and nonylphenol ethoxylate, the latter chemical being used in several US-sold, brand name cleaning agents and personal care products. This three-member 'list' is expected to grow over the next few years.
Wal-Mart also has developed a list of preferred chemical characteristics that it wants its suppliers to use in formulating products. How can the grey list and chemical selection guidance drive supplier change? The usual technique is to hold out a promise for favorable terms. But there is a secondary and equally powerful driver of change that has not received coverage in the US media.

Walmart's "phase out" intentions appear to merely follow recently passed European regulations (search on "ethoxylate") to accomplish in US markets, through Wal-Mart's supply chain management system, the same thing being accomplished in the EU by market-wide regulation. For example, the European Union banned nonylphenol ethoxylates from all cleaners, textile uses, and cosmetics, starting officially in 2005. (Note that the similar compounds octylphenol ethoxylates, or other alkylphenol ethoxylates, were not banned in EU markets.) We think that once North American consumers become aware of what's on the Wal-Mart 'list', regardless of where they shop, we can expect them to begin looking for products that do not contain those ingredients.

We expect Japan, Korea, and possibly China to follow the EU's leadership on this, by the way, which could, therefore, cascade into Wal-Marts world-wide managment system.

This subject well illustrates the "continental divide" that currently exists between EU and US on chemical risk management approaches. Europeans still actively empower their respective governments to manage both chemical and pathogenic organism risks to protect public health. Conversely, US citizens must increasingly depend upon the global marketing desires of the world's largest retailer to indirectly manage chemical risk on their behalf: in this case driven by the European Union. [Sidebar: we're planning a future post on how well FDA does compared to the EU in managing the risk of produce contamination with pathogenic organisms: e.g. spinach]

Following is a list of brand name products currently sold in the US and which are registered as containing nonyl phenol ethoxylates. This comes from the Household Products Database provided by the US National Institutes of Health. Note that we are unsure how comprehensive this list is. There could be additional NPE-containing consumer products, for formulations where the weight percent of the ethoxylate is less than 1% (generally this is a cut off point for public declaration on a material safety data sheet or "MSDS").

After scanning this list, our 'natural instinct' will not include hair coloring and cleaning with these products, situations where direct skin exposure is certain.

Engine Brite Heavy Duty Engine Cleaner-
Armor All Multipurpose Auto Cleaner
Permatex Battery Cleaner-
Time Mist Air Freshener W/Odor Counteractant
Sparkle Metal Polisher
Champion Sprayon Foaming Cleaner
Bravo Platinum Series Metered Air Freshener
Zep Tile and Terrazzo Cleaner
Zep Neutral Floor Cleaner
Whistle Citrus Cleaner/Degreaser
OxiClean Spot and Stain Pretreater
Zep Neutral Floor Cleaner
Parr Paint and Resin Removing Hand Cleaner
DAP Formula 230 Sealant
Behr Premium Plus Sand Texture Paint No. 1002 White
DAP Paintable Silicone Rubber Sealant White
Duro Aluminum Jelly Corrosion Remover
Behr Premium Plus Ceiling Texture Paint No. 559 White
Clairol Natural Instincts for Men Haircolor
Clairol Loving Care Color
Pure Elements Structure Gel
Oil Eater Hand Cleaner with Pumice
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Business Processes:
For those of you who work the corporate world, or with an NGO looking to keep old growth forests out of a corporate supply chain, for example, this post hints at the broader need for sustainable, reliable business processes to keep corporations 'efficiently green'.

We hear that Wal-Mart, for example, is designing a web portal for its suppliers to work on matters such as this. In any such management system, first-tier suppliers will likely start out inputting information manually. As the requirements back up the supply chain, from first to final tiers, feedback loops will eventually reach the chemical specialty companies who really "own" two key issues, globally: ingredient risk characterization and determination of appropriate end uses (exposure management). This is very powerful stuff, once automated, if the corporate initiator at the supply chain's end truly manages against the expected metrics of supplier progress.

If a generic approach like this were widely adopted something like SAP enterprise systems across multiple enterprises was what we were thinking it could be the impetus for a proper xml-based information exchange system across diverse, interwoven supply chains. In that case, design and formlation expectations would be shared in real time, and product designers or formulators have no excuse for missing a regulation, or for not setting the bar, so to speak, for the highest common market denominator, whether it be voluntary or regulatory driven.

At this early state of supply chain greening efforts, there will be supplier concerns over proprietary formulations that may be at risk of being "knocked off" by competitors. As we ponder this, it seems that Wal-Mart may be put in a position similar to USEPA and other agencies of national chemical registration. (These agencies are the ones charged with protecting and evaluating confidential business information, whilst acting as the front guard in protecting the health and safety of the citizenry.) Add this responsibility to a corporation, and marketing interests become part of the decision process. Hmmmm.

This could become a pretty sticky wicket when we move into the area of the "customer right to know.". It's one thing if everyone agrees that the EUs risk management deliberations about a chemical ingredient were reasonable, and that, consequently, Wal-Mart's voluntary supply chain management direction for an ingredient seems reasonable for non-EU nations. But, it would be quite another thing if the EUs risk assessment consensus was weak, and if customers outside the EU wanted to find out about the decision process and ingredient hazard details. This issue of citizen access to information will be most telling once the EUs REACH program reaches maturity.

In closing, we wonder if the free-market Think Tank 'Experts' in the US had gotten to this thought in their push for "getting the government off our backs". Corollary question: will Wal-Mart will subjected to intense lobbying by chemical and consumer product interests wanting to protect their corporate image or US markets? If so, we would never know it. Interesting times.

Tags: Walmart

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