Prodded by health and environmental advocates, Walmart Stores announced Thursday that it will require suppliers to disclose and eventually phase out nearly 10 hazardous chemicals from the fragrances, cosmetics, household cleaners and personal care products at its stores.
The nation's largest retailer said that, beginning in January, it would begin to monitor progress on reducing these chemicals and apply to its own brand of cleaning products the Environmental Protection Agency's Design for the Environment label, which identifies eco-friendly goods. It declined to name the targeted chemicals, saying it will take time to familiarize suppliers with the new policy.
Walmart joins an industry shift away from potentially toxic chemicals in consumer products. Last week, citing consumer preferences, Procter & Gamble announced plans to eliminate hormone-like phthalates and the antibacterial triclosan. In 2012, Johnson & Johnson pledged to remove those two chemicals, along with formaldehyde and parabens, from its personal care products worldwide.
"It's all kind of integrated," Andrea Thomas, Walmart's senior vice president of sustainability, said Thursday about the industry efforts. As it moves forward, she said, Walmart will share best practices with other members of the Sustainability Consortium, a group of companies including Procter & Gamble that aim to reduce the environmental toll of global consumption.
Thomas said Walmart does not intend to cut suppliers off but to remain "collaborative." She said it picked the "high-priority" chemicals, based on the extent of their impact and the availability of safe and affordable alternatives.
"It's a significant step forward," says Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, adding it shows the company is listening to what consumers want. Because of its market dominance, she says, Walmart can "shift the whole industry."
In April, dozens of health and environmental groups, including the Breast Cancer Fund and the Union of Concerned Scientists, urged the nation's top 10 retailers - including Walmart, Target and Costco - to rid their store shelves of 100-plus hazardous chemicals. It asked them to develop a plan within a year to phase out their use in products.
Walmart's announcement is "unusually substantive," says Andy Igrejas. executive director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition advocating against toxic chemical use. He says a lot more work needs to be done, but Walmart appears to be making a "meaningful down payment."
Igregas says he's been urging retailers to act, because they've shown more willingness to do so than the federal government. He says the U.S. Toxic Control Substances Act hasn't had a major update since its passage in 1976, and many chemicals used in consumer products aren't federally tested or required to submit safety data.
In fact, many stores pre-empted a 2012 federal ban on bisphenol-A (BPA) by no longer selling baby products containing the hormone-disrupting chemical.
Retailers have taken other steps. In 2007, Target and the parent company of Sears and Kmart announced plans to join Walmart in phasing out polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from products. In 2011, Walmart said it would stop using a controversial flame retardant. Kroger, which phased BPA out of cash register receipts in 2011, said in 2012 that its Simple Truth products would be free of 101 chemicals and ingredients. Lowe's and Home Depot have stopped selling driveway sealants that contain coal tar, which has suspected carcinogenic chemicals.
Walmart said that, beginning in January 2015, it would require suppliers to disclose ingredients online for items sold at its stores,, and In January 2016, it would begin to report publicly on what progress is being made.