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Safer Products: Talk is Cheap, Resistance Futile

The handwringing and defensive happy talk is winding down today. The industries that make, use and sell toxic chemicals in everyday products are wrapping up two major industry conferences – a national Safer Consumer Products Summit in Washington, DC and an international Product Safety Workshop in Seattle, WA.

Dismay dominates these agendas.  The chemical industry, the toy industry, major retailers and other product manufacturers are reeling from a growing wave of consumer discontent over the safety of the products we buy.

At gatherings like these, there’s a lot of industry talk about defending the status quo, and blunting chemical regulation and market demand for safer chemicals.  As usual, however, actions speak louder than words. 

The chemical industry coalition would do well to follow Walmart’s lead.  Last week, the world’s largest retailer announced a new Policy on Sustainable Chemistry in Consumables that calls for safer substitutes.  Suppliers must disclose and phase-out ten priority chemicals of high concern in household cleaning, personal care, beauty and cosmetic products sold by Walmart.

Walmart’s action represents a major first step in responding to the consumer demand for safer products expressed by the Mind the Store and Safe Cosmetics campaigns.  Other brand owners and retailers are not far behind in developing corporate chemical policies that favor effective safer alternatives over dangerous chemicals.

At conferences like these, the chemical industry likes to tout its success in blocking adoption of new state chemical safety laws. But the genie of state policy action is already out of the bottle.  Consider what state regulators accomplished just this past year under laws already on the books:

  • Washington state forced disclosure of chemicals of high concern in more than 5,000 children’s products;
  • Maine phased out BPA, the hormone havoc chemical, in baby food containers based on a finding that safer alternatives are available, effective and affordable; and
  • California adopted sweeping rules to require companies to search for safer substitutes for priority chemicals in targeted consumer products.

Retailers and state officials will continue to respond to growing consumer demand, because the customer – and voter – remains king. Congress should leverage that pent up demand to finally fix our broken federal chemical safety system. 

The introduction of the Chemical Safety Improvement Act of 2013 (CSIA) created a bipartisan opening.  Now Congress can correct CSIA’s major flaws in order to pass the first overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act in nearly 40 years.

The real take away from this week’s safer product summits: it’s time to stop talking and start acting … if you want keep your customers, satisfied.