Monday, February 1, 2010

Chemical Review - The Wal-Mart Factor, Redux

Those who have been following the ins and outs of chemical control reform know that one of the factors that have led to the current efforts is something I call the "Wal-Mart Factor." Wal-Mart's revenues and outreach surpasses the economic influence of many countries. So when Wal-Mart talks, lots of people listen. And Wal-Mart is talking about chemical control, albeit in a slightly softer voice than in the past.

In 2006 Wal-Mart launched its Chemical Intensive Products Network program, which was intended to identify 20 chemicals that it would work to eliminate from products sold at its stores. And if companies have to reformulate their products to meet Wal-Mart's standards, they will reformulate for everyone. Well, that program flattened out a bit once the real world hit the theory, and Wal-Mart shifted toward collaboration with suppliers to encourage safer and more sustainable alternatives rather than an outright banning of anything it put on its list.

Wal-Mart is now moving completely away from the pass-fail approach, though they will continue to work toward more sustainable products. Last year it introduced a screening program called GreenWERCS that will use a broad array of criteria to identify risks. Suppliers can simply enter the chemicals present in their products and GreenWERCS will evaluate them based these aggregated criteria. The goal is to help suppliers identify more sustainable ingredients to use in their products. Not quite the "if it's bad, it's gone" approach of 2006, but still in the right direction.

In the end Wal-Mart is shooting for a "sustainability index," which will be some measure that can be readily communicated to the public to identify sustainable products. Presumably there would be some number system or logo that could be branded on the product to let consumers make better choices.

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