Cops of the global village.
That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.
Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”
This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:
Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”
Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.
So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?
In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates, 1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.
But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.
What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.
All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.
Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.
I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.
In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.