Walmart to Suppliers: Toxic Chemicals Gotta Go…Now

The world's largest retailer has undertaken an ambitious effort to make products safer, whether its suppliers like it or not.

February 28, 2014


Whatever you might think of the behemoth retailer that is Walmart, Walmart wants you to think that it's not just the cheapest but also the safest place to shop in the U.S.


As part of a major undertaking to reform the safety of cleaning products, personal care products, baby products and pet-care goods, Walmart, in September, announced that it would be requiring its suppliers to eliminate certain toxic chemicals from those products and to replace them with demonstrably safer alternatives. (Read more about Walmart's chemical reform policy: Walmart Kicks Toxic Chemicals Out of Its Stores)

And it appears that those plans are officially underway. According to a blog posted on the website of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit that works with Walmart on sustainability issues, the company just sent out letters to suppliers of cleaners, shampoos, and cosmetics, informing them that they will now have to begin phasing out toxic chemicals and will have until 2018 to do so. Perhaps more significantly, any supplier that can't remove these chemicals from its products by that date will have to start disclosing their presence on product packages.

Four years might seem like an unreasonably long time, but it's a deliberate process that needs careful implementation, says Michelle Harvey, senior manager for retail in EDF's Corporate Partnerships Program, who's been working with Walmart since 2009 to help develop their new chemicals reform policy. "If these chemicals were easy to replace, that would have been done when people first started talking about them," she says. A rush to reformulate might lead to "a regrettable substitution, and that happens all too often. We've seen it with flame retardants and with BPA," she adds. Toxic flame retardants that were phased out in 2004 due to links to learning disabilities in children have been replaced with chemicals known to cause cancer, and replacements for BPA, or bisphenol A, a hormone disruptor used in canned goods, thermal receipts and some plastics, are proving to be just as toxic as BPA, if not more so.

Walmart's chemical reform policy includes specific language about replacements to the chemicals of concern, requiring that suppliers choose those that are demonstrably safer than the chemicals being replaced. "We would rather see systematic change that brings real benefit to the consumer," says Harvey. And oddly, that's one reason why Walmart isn't disclosing the initial list of the ten chemicals it wants out of products, she says. Drawing public attention to one particular chemical or product could drive producers to abandon it too quickly and turn to alternatives that haven't been thoroughly researched, she says.

But regardless, now that Walmart's plan is officially underway, this could be a tipping point for chemicals in consumer goods sold in the U.S., says Harvey. "Walmart is the biggest lever in the retail community," she says. For one, simply because of the company's position as the world's largest retailer, it's unlikely that product manufacturers will have a production line making safer products for Walmart and a separate line making toxic products for other retailers.

Plus, other retailers are starting to follow their lead. After Walmart's initial announcement in September, Target followed with their own Sustainable Product Standard, which eventually will rank products based on a scoring system that awards points according to safety of ingredients and transparency of chemicals on labels. Harvey says that CVS, the drugstore chain that just made waves as the first to ban tobacco products, is also considering instituting safer chemical requirements.

All of this is occurring while Congress is debating changes to the country's outdated and ineffective chemical-safety law known as the Toxic Substances Control Act, and successful efforts by the world's largest retailer to clean up its supply chain could push reforms in a positive direction, Harvey says. "If Walmart can show that they can sell products with good ingredients at a reasonable price, it certainly takes the wind out of people who say [chemical reforms are] too expensive and will lead to products that don't work," she adds.