Yesterday Walmart announced a new policy on “Sustainable Chemistry in Consumables.” Though intended for consumer and personal care products sold at the retail giant, key elements of this policy reinforce and vindicate the US Green Building Council’s strategy for encouraging the use of healthier building materials. Walmart’s policy makes mandatory for their suppliers many practices that the USGBC has made voluntary in LEED through modest, optional credits.
Beginning in January 2014, Walmart will begin monitoring the progress on “reduction, restriction and elimination” of approximately 10 high priority chemicals in the consumer products it sells. In January 2015 it will require its suppliers to provide online disclosure of ingredients for any products sold in its stores. This “disclose all and avoid the worst” approach to addressing toxics hazards is the same framework used for the new materials credits in LEED v4.
Walmart’s policy objective is “to help ensure that... products sold by Walmart will minimize hazards to people and the environment.” (emphasis added) This position, now held by the world’s second largest corporation, underscores the validity of the USGBC’s commitment to the precautionary principle, and the hazard-based approach in LEED v4. Walmart rejects the tobacco-science arguments advanced against LEED by chemical manufacturers that set an impossibly high burden of proof for any effort to identify and minimize the use of toxic chemicals.
Walmart’s commitment to using “informed substitution principles” is an endorsement of the LEED v4 commitment to the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals. Built on the work of the US EPA’s Design for the Environment program, the GreenScreen provides a benchmarking protocol to ensure that substitutes for priority chemicals of concern have lower potential health impacts. While the chemical industry objects to LEED’s use of the GreenScreen for evaluating building materials, Walmart uses the GreenScreen as part of their informed substitution strategy.
The announcement is far from perfect. Walmart has not publicly identified the chemicals it has targeted for reduction or elimination, and will not begin reporting on compliance until 2016. It has not prescribed a standard disclosure format, such as the Health Product Declaration, which will likely mean that it will be difficult for anyone to effectively use the chemical ingredient data that suppliers will be required to report in 2015.
Still, the impact is difficult to understate. Just one week prior to yesterday’s announcement, one major supplier, Proctor & Gamble, announced plans to eliminate phthalates and triclosan from its products, suggesting these chemicals are likely candidates for the Walmart list. Phthalate plasticizers are ubiquitous in soft vinyl building products, and triclosan is increasingly added to interior finishes as an “anti-microbial.”
At Greenbuild last year, USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi used his keynote speech to stand up to the relentless and vicious attacks of the chemical companies, many of them USGBC members, and assured the capacity crowd that “We Are Right.” For all the green building movement activists who find themselves in the crosshairs of chemical industry attacks and remain committed to the cause of industry transparency and healthy buildings – the beleaguered USGBC staff, the LEED Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group, the Health Product Declaration leaders, our loyal Pharos subscribers – perhaps the greatest impact of Walmart’s new chemicals policy is the affirmation: Yes You Are.