This week, Walmart announced that it will cut down or eliminate approximately 10 major toxic chemicals from its store brand products (like cleaning products and cosmetics) and require suppliers to eventually reveal use of those ingredients to customers.
For an idea of how big an impact that will make, look towards California. The state's failed Proposition 37, which required GMO labeling on most food items, would have had a ripple effect across the U.S.: because California is so big, companies who didn't want the label on their products in the state would have probably just started using GMO-free ingredients around the country. Walmart is even bigger than California—when measured by revenue, it's the equivalent of a large country. So when the company decides to make a shift like this, it affects entire industries.
Beginning in 2015, the company will require suppliers to start revealing use of toxic chemicals to customers online. By 2018, any remaining chemicals on Walmart's list will have to be disclosed on in-store packaging. But the retail giant hopes that suppliers never actually get to the point of having to blast their use of toxic chemicals to the world—the company plans to work closely with them to ensure that they can phase out the chemicals over the coming years.
Next year, Walmart will start labeling its in-house brand cleaning products with the EPA's Design for the Environment labeling program, which identifies cost-effective and healthy items.
The company won't yet name the chemicals on its priority list. Before releasing the list publicly, Walmart "wanted to work with suppliers, and be mindful that it's going to take some time to communicate with suppliers on policy," explained Andrea Thomas, Walmart's senior vice president of sustainability, on a press call. When evaluating which chemicals to focus on, Walmart reportedly looked at impact, the viability and availability of alternatives, and the cost effectiveness of phasing them out.
Walmart worked with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop its list; in 2009, the two organizations developed GreenWERCS, a chemical screening tool that ultimately revealed a disturbing statistic: almost half of all formulated products on Walmart shelves harbor "chemicals of concern."
Sarah Vogel, director of EDF’s Environmental Health program, tells Co.Exist that GreenWERCS will make sure that Walmart suppliers don't replace toxic chemicals with other equally toxic chemicals. "This is better than anyone else out there. The fact that Walmart is using this tool is a critical first step toward safer products," she says.
While Walmart refuses to reveal the chemicals on its list, we can guess what some of them may be based on other recent high-profile announcements. Last week, Procter and Gamble announced that it will eliminate triclosan (a carcinogenic antibacterial) and pthalates (a group of chemicals that mimic hormones) from its products. And in 2012, Johnson and Johnson announced a plan to remove triclosan, pthalates, parabens (another kind of hormone disrupter), and formaldehyde from all personal care products.
Despite its convictions, Walmart won't kick suppliers who still use toxic chemicals to the curb. "We're not at the point where we stop carrying a product because of a sustainability issue," said Thomas. "If they're working towards solutions with us, that's the outcome we want."