Why Did Walmart Take The Unusual Step To Tackle Chemicals?

FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, file photo, reusable shopping bags are offered for sale at a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

This is a guest post from Michelle Harvey, Directory of Supply Chains at Environmental Defense Fund.

Walmart recently announced progress on its groundbreaking Sustainable Chemistry Policy, a 2013 plan that set the stage for some 700 suppliers to rethink how they make more than 90,000 home and personal care products.

Result: The world’s largest retailer drove out more than 11,000 tons – 23 million pounds, or 95 percent by weight – of prioritized chemicals from that group of products in less than 30 months.

A lot still remains to be done. But this story is a good one and Walmart’s leadership, sustainability team and buyers – deserve credit for what they accomplished.

What’s perhaps equally extraordinary is that they chose to do so at all.

Sustainability wins are typically also economic wins. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and your energy expenses drop. Address water use in drought-prone areas, and you avoid costly supply chain disruptions that cause price spikes and make customers unhappy.

Changing chemicals is difficult and risky

Even when the science says it’s time to make a change because one or more legal ingredients we once believed to be safe turn out not to be – changing a product formula without changing the product can be difficult. It also takes time: on average 18 to 24 months.

Product ingredients are the smell, the feel and the way a product cleans or softens or does whatever it’s supposed to do. Change it, and you risk sales if customers reject the alternative.