Chemicals Are the New Carbon as Corporate America Rethinks Risks

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By Andrea Vittorio

Chemicals are the new carbon, according to a group of investors, retailers and others that’s come up with a way to gauge corporate progress toward safer alternatives to toxic ingredients.

Johnson & Johnson, Levi Strauss & Co., and 22 more sellers of products from household cleaners to clothing responded to the first-of-its-kind survey from the Chemical Footprint Project.

The survey, now in its second year, asked them to quantify chemicals in their products and supply chains, much like they would calculate a carbon footprint. Those that did reduced their use of hazardous chemicals by a collective 416 million pounds over the past two years—enough to fill over 3,600 swimming pools, an Aug. 2 report found.

The project has gotten backing from investors managing $2.3 trillion in assets. One of its supporters, Trillium Asset Management, considers it a proxy for good governance.

“We, as investors, will be pushing them to disclose more information because if they’re silent, then we just think they’re not managing the risks,” Susan Baker, a vice president and member of the shareholder advocacy team at Trillium, told Bloomberg BNA. Mismanaging chemicals-related risks in an area of fast-growing regulations can have financial implications for companies, the report said.

Reluctance to Report

So can marketing safer products to increasingly health-conscious consumers. “We think it’s a great initiative for our customer, first and foremost,” said Zach Freeze, senior director for sustainability at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which became the first retailer to answer the survey this year.

The retail giant has been using its purchasing power to make items on its shelves safer. So far, Wal-Mart’s suppliers say they’ve removed from products sold in U.S. stores more than 96 percent of certain chemicals by volume weight that were deemed high-priority, according to the company’s most recent sustainability report.

“It’s something that we see as value to our business and we hope our suppliers feel the same way,” Freeze told Bloomberg BNA.

Only five of the companies participating in the Chemical Footprint Project agreed to reveal their survey responses or how they scored in a benchmarking of their chemicals policies and practices. Mark Rossi, who co-founded the project, said that may be because companies are reluctant to report beyond regulatory compliance. He said it may also be due to a lack of chemicals awareness, which can vary depending on what kind of product companies sell.

For companies with liquid products like cleaners or paints, chemical ingredients are core to their business. So they scored higher on average than companies with hard products like clothing and furniture, who tend to think more about materials and less about the chemical content of those materials.

“So there’s this whole learning curve that you see companies going through,” Rossi, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Clean Production Action, told Bloomberg BNA.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Yin Wilczek at ywilczek@bna.com

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