20 January 2005 17:47 [Source: ICIS news]
How important is image to the chemicals industry? Probably pushed down the agenda when you are seeking to maintain a firm position in the widening debate on Reach, the European Union’s proposed new chemicals policy. Caught in the middle of the EU political process, the draft Reach regulations are being pored over by Europe’s Council of Ministers, by the European Parliament and the European Commission (EC). The industry view is established but has noticeably hardened as a first full-scale debate in parliament nears.
The date for this first parliamentary reading of Reach (which stands for the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals) is expected by September or October this year and a significant number of amendments to the current draft will be proposed. Many questions are being raised in the line-by-line consideration of Reach being undertaken by ad hoc Council working groups. In many respects, the industry is winning its arguments about workability and costs. But in doing so it is exposed to scrutiny as never before.
This is not just public scrutiny. Other sectors of industry are waking up to the influence chemicals have on them. Many businesses in the numerous industries that use chemicals everyday are becoming increasingly concerned about how chemicals scare stories might affect them.
And we have not had the real scare stories yet. A great deal more is likely to be heard in Europe this year from non governmental organisation (NGOs) and others who believe firmly in much stricter chemicals control. Such calls for change might be manageable. What would be more difficult to contend with would be further erosion of the industry’s already poor public image. Fighting for markets, businesses and jobs is one thing. Damaging your credibility in the process is another.
The sector is a long way from damaging its credibility in the Reach debate but one senses the danger of protesting too much. Reach will be altered but changed in the way groups like the employer’s federation Unice and some others want, maybe not. There is no point in adopting a conciliatory stance in the face of the threats some parts of Reach pose. Reach cannot, however, be used as a platform from which to gain regulatory concessions.
The industry is not going to emerge from the Reach debate with less onerous chemicals control. Quite the reverse. It has to push hard for that control to be balanced and proportionate.
Two of the most telling (of many) expert presentations at the public Reach debate held by the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday (19 January) were from companies which have direct, daily contact with the general public. UK high street retailer Marks & Spencer has clear views on the role the future of chemicals control has to play in its business strategy, for instance.
The company’s sustainable development manager Mike Barry put it succinctly in Brussels. The retailer worries about the ‘cost’ of carrying chemicals in its supply chain and the articles it sells, so it wants to see a better Reach. The current proposals do not benefit human health, the environment or industry competitiveness, Barry declared. It considers the Reach draft lacking in its treatment of articles. It wants to see a robust chemicals agency.
High street retailers such as Marks & Spencer fear another chemicals scare and clearly want to work more closely with chemical companies far up the product chain. But they ask whether some producers are using estimates of the cost of Reach as scare stories they can hide behind to move or close plants and businesses.
Charles Laroche, vice president corporate public relations & public affairs, for household products and foods giant, Unilever, took a slightly different approach. But he stressed the opportunities Reach presented to chemicals makers and users.
Reach could provide a chemicals user information model that ultimately is related to risk as opposed to hazard, a consumer labelling system for chemicals, perhaps. People might be safe, he suggested but if they do not feel safe Reach will have failed.
The failure of Reach at this stage is difficult to contemplate and the view from the big public Reach debate was very much that it will not. Reach has to be made to work although time is of the essence too. Consumers want to feel safe and they want to trust that regulations can deliver enhanced health, safety and environmental protection. All involved have a duty strive for that goal to their best abilities.
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