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Retailers compete to clean up toxic chemicals, consumers benefit

Jennifer Beals expressed the frustration of mom’s everywhere last week when she said a mother shouldn’t feel she needs a degree in toxicology in order to be a competent mother. She gave voice to a lot of mothers who feel the federal government, chemical companies, product manufacturers and retailers have not had their back when it comes to keeping toxic chemicals away from their families.

Consumer frustrations

Two examples of this are fresh in my mind. I met a Montana mom as part of our “Stroller Brigade.” Like many people she came to this issue by facing health problems of her own. She stopped using conventional cleaners and avoids eating processed food. She’s done a lot, but we know that due to our weak federal laws, she can’t control every toxic chemical exposure in her home and community.

On the other hand, one of my closest friends from the DC area is new to motherhood. She’s on the beginning end of the learning curve, and brought her son James Leo (pictured) to the capital too. Because she’s newer to parenthood, she feels bewildered by what she brings home in those shopping bags. She recently found a “natural” diaper wipe and stocked up for a year while they were on sale. Weeks later, she came across an article saying the wipes contained problem chemicals. Angry and frustrated by having that happen more than once, it wasn’t hard to convince her to join the brigade.

Retailers Feel the Heat

That’s why mom’s and dozens of health and environment groups helped us launch the “Mind the Store” campaign last spring. Parents can’t go to the Capitol every day, but all of us need to stock our kitchens, closets and pantry’s. There’s a closeness and immediacy to that relationship between retailers and families. So while the chemical industry and Congress continue to play their familiar game of obfuscation and influence peddling, in less than a year, retailers announced some very substantive first steps to clean up their shelves.

Race to the Top

By early summer, just months after launching Mind the Store, we were hearing from some of the world’s largest retailers. By summer’s end, the nation’s biggest retailer, Walmart, took the first official step on toxic chemicals, indicating it would begin disclosing chemicals in many product categories while phasing out approximately ten hazardous chemicals from products. In explaining the significance of the move to USA Today, we called it “unusually substantive” and an indication that retailers were more willing to act than Congress, which has managed to do nothing for decades.

Just a few weeks later, the number three retailer in the country, Target, announced it was stepping up too. Due to consumer pressure, the company rolled out a “Sustainable Product Standard,” that would rate thousands of cleaners, personal care, beauty and baby care products based on the safety and sustainability of their ingredients. The new system gives the greatest weight to products that avoid a list of slightly more than 1000 unique chemicals.

Sandy Bauers from the Philadelphia Inquirer said it well, “…As with many things of late, while Congress dithers – in this case, over reform of chemical safety laws that even the industry says is long overdue – the rest of the country moves ahead, even if it’s in piecemeal fashion.”

To my mind, we are the start of an exciting race to the top among retailers, and the winners will be consumers who will benefit from safer products. We need your help though. We are only at the beginning. Who do you think will be next? Please sign up to support “Mind the Store” campaign today.