Image: Jason O'Halloran, Flickr
Bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to reform the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Although it is barely on the radar of most news media and public awareness, this may be bigger than the gulf oil spill, health care, or even global climate change. In the words of Jeffrey Hollender, Chief Inspired Protagonist (CIP) of Seventh Generation, "this is probably the most important piece of legislation -- for Seventh Generation's goals -- that has come up in over 2 decades." TreeHugger took the opportunity to ask him some questions about the proposed law.For those who are not familiar with the company, Seventh Generation takes their name from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy: "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations." Jeffrey Hollender has passed on of his Seventh Generation chief executive duties so he can commit the next ten years to changing the externalization of costs and establishing a robust set of business principles that will make "sustainable" the only way to do business. One prong of his efforts is support of a strong Safe Chemicals Act.
As you would expect, Jeffrey explains, stakeholders are aligning around the proposed legislation in two main camps: industry and the NGOs. Industry is represented by organizations such as the
The non-governmental organizations (NGOs), represent nurses, environmental groups, a "green coalition" of 7 labor unions, and networks of small businesses embracing sustainability. The path forward, Jeffrey stresses, requires consensus on how, not whether, reform must proceed: "Industry has proven their inability to regulate themselves." As an example, Jeffrey notes that the government has established guidelines for how industry must use the signal words "Caution," "Poison," or "Danger" on consumer product labels. But it is left to the companies to interpret the guidelines, and it is not in the interest of the companies to put such scary words on labels. So the communication of potential risks suffers under the conflict of interests.
Those who follow chemical control legislation know that there are some tricky obstacles to be navigated: TreeHugger probed Jeffrey's position on the topics.
Does Jeffrey envision that the government should take full responsibility for prescribing labeling requirements to industry? No, the burden of proof must remain with industry, but the determination should be with the government, and the law must be changed to support the precautionary principle: "We as a society are paying an incredible cost for not using the precautionary principle."
What is the precautionary principle? Take, for example, the results of a recent study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They tested the umbilical cords of ten babies -- and found almost 300 chemicals in the blood of these pure, innocent newborns. Do these chemicals cause any harm? The fact is: no one knows for sure. But the current legislative scheme requires EPA to prove that there is harm before these chemicals can be regulated. Protection of the public devolves into an argument about the sufficiency of scientific evidence. The precautionary principle reverses the game: industry must have sufficient evidence to prove a chemical is safe for the intended uses.
But will the law require more animal testing, subjecting uncounted laboratory animals to suffering for the benefit of safe cosmetics or household cleaners? Jeffrey admits that this is a difficult questions that must be navigated on a case-by-case basis. But he is clear on one fact: "there is far too much animal testing today." We should do everything we can to minimize, if not eliminate, animal testing, Jeffrey emphasizes.
Seventh Generation has won awards for commitment to not testing with animals. TreeHugger asks: is it ingenuous to use chemicals known to be safe due to decades of (animal) testing, while claiming "no animal testing"? Jeffrey admits: there is benefit derived from historical testing. But he insists Seventh Generation has never been unable to formulate a product they wanted without abiding by the no animal testing guidelines.
When it comes to chemical law, industry keeps the "regulations stifle innovation" weapon sharp and ready to pull from its sheath. Jeffrey brings his years of experience in the household products business to bear: "If it is stifling the innovation of more toxic chemicals, I am OK with that."
Chemical control laws typically create incentives for innovation by substituting "safer" alternatives for chemicals known to be hazardous. The law of unintended consequences ensure that many of these attempts result in the substitution of "unknown" chemicals for chemicals with known hazards. Often, the substitutes are chemical cousins of the bad actors, likely to have similar hazards -- but not yet enough science to "prove" the hazard. We ask Jeffrey for his prescription to balance innovation and suppress greenwashing.
Jeffrey's horizons probably extend significantly beyond what the sponsors of the Safe Chemicals Act hope to achieve. He proposes that you have to start with certain principles. "Business is allowed to, and to some extent encouraged to, externalize costs onto society." Jeffrey envisions measures that go beyond chemical control to full cost accounting. He is serious: "I am committed to spend the next 10 years of my life to achieve that."
It's the Economy
Will a strong chemical control law at this point in time threaten the economic recovery? Jeffrey is adamant that the case is the opposite: "I absolutely believe that this legislation is what's best for our economy." He elucidates: most of the industries fighting this bill have not been job creators. When you look at the statistical growth of the sustainable segment, you see a sector that has grown very significantly and which has proven itself resilient in a downturn. The fact is that our system counts illnesses like cancer or disasters like the Gulf oil spill as creating positive growth of the GNP. This approach will leave the United States increasingly uncompetitive.
How You Can Take Action
One final question for a man who has proven that he walks the talk: What can and should an average person do to ensure that they are safe in a world full of chemicals? Write their legislator?
Of course, Jeffrey answers, writing your representatives can help. But the average person can do more. Let the NGOs know that this issue is important to you. And pay careful attention to which companies are fighting the reform. Write the CEOs, and inform them that you are boycotting their products because of their stance on the issue.
More on Chemical Safety Reform:
Green Eyes On: Avoiding Cancer Every Day of Your Life
Shocking Report Reveals Secret Chemicals in Popular Perfumes, Is Yours One of them?
Obama Administration Suspends CHAMP Chemical Assessment Program
No Safe Amount: The Handshake Theory of Chemical Toxicity
REACH for Greener Chemistry
Should Manufacturers Disclose Secret Chemical Ingredients?
More on Seventh Generation and Jeffrey Hollender:
Seventh Generation Household Cleaning Products
Target Begins Carrying Seventh Generation Household Products
Seventh Generation Changes CEOs
Seventh Generation Forecasts the Future of Business: The Responsibility Revolution (Book Review)