Leaders in Sustainable Chemicals Management for Safer Products Do These 5 Things

Some say that chemicals are the building blocks of our economy. When you think about chemicals as the basis for every ingredient, material, and component of any product, the importance of chemistry seems obvious. Most of us don't think much about these building blocks though. As consumers, we probably should think more about the safety of these ingredients though.

If you're in the business of making products, or your business relies on using products to perform a service, then chemicals ultimately play a role in your success. That means you need a strategy for managing chemicals.

If you have any ambitions of moving towards a more circular economy and circular product lifecycle, you absolutely need to manage chemical ingredients.

Here are five steps in becoming a leader in sustainable chemicals management. Following these steps will help mitigate risk while fostering opportunities for innovation regardless of your industry. 

1. Adopt a Precautionary Approach

The precautionary principle should serve as the basis for your sustainable chemicals management plan. In simplified terms, an approach to managing chemicals that is based on the precautionary principle means that you protect people and ecosystems from potential harm in circumstances of scientific uncertainty.

I tend to think of a precautionary approach as "assumed hazardous until proven safe", rather than the prevailing approach of "assumed safe until proven hazardous". The latter tends to make us all non-consenting test subjects. This principle serves as a guiding light, but is not necessarily a decision-making tool.

Example: H&M Chemicals Management

2. Foster Robust Transparency

Consumers, investors, retailers - everyone is looking for more transparency when it comes to chemical ingredients and supply chains. But the more transparent you want to be, the more complicated it can get. Articulating a clear policy, providing full public ingredient disclosure, and working to increase manufacturer and supply chain disclosures are all key elements

Robust transparency also requires accountability. That's why leaders in this space also use effective stakeholder engagement. Leaders build credibility through accountability by partnering with others in and outside their industries, as well as with advocacy organizations and credible technical experts.

Examples: DeclareTom's of Maine

3. Use Safer Alternatives

Robust transparency becomes much less risky for a brand when you use safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. (Note: Ask anyone responsible for risk management if ignorance is a good strategy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). By following a process to effectively using safer alternatives you can help ensure that you are future-proofing your products and services.

Part of what makes sustainable chemicals management difficult is that the scientific landscape is constantly evolving, just like the regulatory landscape. You want to make sure that you don't choose an ingredient or source a product that has regrettably substituted one bad actor for another.  

A precautionary process for developing and using safer chemicals and products goes like this:

  • Know what ingredients are used in the finished product as well as the manufacturing process
  • Assess the hazards of chemical ingredients and process chemicals
  • Identify and use safer alternatives
  • Embrace continuous improvement

Example: Levi's Strauss & Co. Screened Chemistry Program

4. Establish Goals & Metrics

Leading organizations in this space always have goals. Occasionally audacious, often aspirational, always relevant. There are some real and systemic barriers related to sustainable chemicals management so goals matter because they help us actually move the needle. I think there is utility in industry-wide goals, as well as goals for individual companies on this topic.

It's important to be focused on making progress towards those goals too. So setting up some metrics or "key performance indicators" (KPI's) for you sustainability nerds, is necessary. They help us credibly demonstrate where we are succeeding and where we have opportunities for improvement. These should be objective, measurable, relevant, and complete. Performing a chemical footprint (like a carbon footprint, but for chemicals) is one way to measure.

Example: Target Chemicals Strategy

5. Support Smart Public Policies

Supporting smart public policies is always the hardest part of being a leader in sustainable chemicals management. This is true even with all of the technical complexity and supply chain challenges. In my experience, it's where even really committed brands can easily fall short. It's riskier to not take a clear position on public policies that influence material sustainability issues for your brand than it is to weigh in directly. This is counterintuitive for some people.

I won't get started on a rant about trade associations, but depending on your company and industry, there's probably a good chance that you are a member of at least one. Maybe several. Due yourself a favor and proactively find out if you belong to any of the well-known opponents of sustainable chemicals management policies (email me for more info). These organizations represent a real threat to your credibility and ability to authentically message about your sustainability actions.

The best way to engage in the public policy process is through strategic activism. Colin Price Consulting has years of experience planning and managing strategic activism campaigns. We also have deep technical expertise on this particular topic as well. Bonus!

Examples: Beautycounter's Support for Oregon's Toxic Free Kids Act