Amazon Joins Walmart, Other Major Retailers on Safer Chemicals

Oct 16, 2018 8:30 PM ET

Read original blog on EDF+Business

By Boma Brown-West and Alissa Sasso

Retail demand for safer products is not only here to stay – it’s now a source of competition in the evolving marketplace. Amazon is the latest retailer to join Walmart, Target, CVS Health, Home Depot, and Rite-Aid by publishing a chemicals policy and a public Restricted Substances List. Amazon and several of the above-mentioned companies represent half of the top ten retailers in the US. Amazon’s new policy is a big deal: not only is Amazon the third largest retailer by sales in the US, it is the first primarily ecommerce retailer to create a chemicals policy. Ecommerce represents a challenge in terms of implementing such a policy, but as shoppers increasingly turn to online retailers for many of their purchasing needs, this also presents a major opportunity to increase the availability of safer products.   

While Amazon’s and others’ policies have room for improvement, we’re excited about many of the common elements reflected across these policies. These retailers are sending a strong and consistent demand signal throughout the value chain to remove toxic chemicals from products and to ensure that new ingredients used to reformulate products are truly safer.

What are these common elements and why are they important?

  • Beauty and Personal Care (BPC) Leadership Group Participation: In its policy Amazon announced joining the BPC Leadership Group. Walmart, Target, and CVS already participate, as does Walgreens, Sephora, EDF, and numerous product manufacturers. The BPC product scorecard consists of uniform criteria to define safer and more sustainable beauty and personal care products. Amazon’s participation in the group, and future implementation of the scorecard, strengthens the BPC criteria. For the first time, we are witnessing significant market agreement on a common standard for a “sustainable” beauty and personal care product. As industry shifts towards using the BPC critera, other retailers and product manufacturers will be pushed to rise to this standard.
  • Removing chemicals of concern: Walmart released its first policy in 2013 and defined a priority chemical as “a chemical that meets the criteria for classification as a carcinogen, mutagen, reproductive toxicant, or is persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic; or any chemical for which there is ’scientific evidence of probable serious effects to human health or the environment which give rise to an equivalent level of concern‘. Amazon’s policy uses the same definition for chemicals of concern. And, like Walmart, Target, CVS, and Home Depot, Amazon has initially prioritized the following chemicals for removal from products: parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates, nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPEs), toluene, and triclosan.

Amazon is amplifying the message that suppliers and product manufacturers should restrict and eliminate these chemicals from their products -- meaning that products throughout the value chain, and not just those sold by these retailers -- will be safer. This also reinvigorates the call for innovation of truly safer alternatives to these priority chemicals.

  • Focusing on hotspot product categories: Amazon’s policy applies to its private brand formulated baby, household cleaning, personal care, and beauty products. Walmart, Target, and CVS have also prioritized these categories (Walmart and Target go further by tackling national brand products too). These are products that are used frequently, many daily, across all consumer segments. Driving change in these categories ensures safer products for all, especially those that are most vulnerable among us, like babies and children.
  • Increasing the assortment of safer products: Most of the retailers encourage the use of credible certifications for products in these categories, particularly the US EPA Safer Choice and Cradle to Cradle certification programs. These certifications communicate to customers that products have met rigorous ingredient selection criteria and make it easier for customers to make informed purchasing decisions.
  • Promotion of the use of safer alternatives: Amazon is encouraging its private brand suppliers to “phase out potentially hazardous chemicals and adopt green chemistry alternatives”. Like Walmart, Target, the Home Depot, and Rite-Aid, Amazon also promotes the use of the US EPA Safer Chemicals Ingredient List (SCIL) to facilitate improvement. This creates a greater demand for safer alternatives, spurs innovation for new alternatives, and provides innovators with the ability to scale these chemicals for commercial use.

With these policy elements in place, retailers have set the foundation to ensure that their policies translate into real results in stores and online. Here is EDF’s take on what steps these retailers should to take to ensure success:

  • Use a data-driven approach to tracking progress: Developing a meaningful process for measuring their chemical footprint is critically important to ensuring progress in reducing the use of harmful chemicals in products. It also allows retailers to identify products and suppliers that represent hotspots in need of faster improvement and support. Importantly, it will help retailers ensure that products used frequently by consumer segments disproportionately impacted by chemicals exposures, e.g. children and women of color, keep up with improvements happening across product categories more broadly.  
  • Support suppliers and buyers with tools to implement their policies: Successful outcomes will require direct engagement and collaboration with suppliers and buyers. This support involves working with suppliers to develop supplier-specific implementation plans as part of the retailers’ larger goals, encouraging suppliers and holding them accountable to these goals, and sharing supplier success stories. Retailers can bring buyers into this process by educating them about chemical policies as well as the steps that suppliers are taking to improve products. This will encourage buyers to seek out and feature safer products thereby further increasing the demand signal for these products.
  • Accelerate the availability and uptake of verified safer ingredients: Collectively the retailers are increasing the demand for safer alternatives. Though there are some resources for alternatives, like the SCIL, there are chemicals and functional classes that would benefit from innovation to identify alternatives. The retailers can continue to support initiatives that spur innovation, like the GC3 preservatives challenge, and can help bring new alternatives to scale.
  • Report progress and results publicly: Amazon, as well as some of the other retailers, should create measurable goals based on their commitments, as well as the metrics they plan to use to track progress. Meaningful, time-bound commitments hold retailers and suppliers accountable. Reporting goals and progress shows customers that retailers are actually creating change in store and online.   

Through EDF’s work with Walmart, we’ve seen the hard work needed to implement a chemicals policy and to bring stakeholders along for the journey. Ultimately, Amazon’s policy and the actions taken by other retailers will result in a safer marketplace. We will continue to support and challenge companies as the market moves towards mainstreaming safer products.