Consumer industry increases sustainability initiatives

Follow the green brick road

30 January 2008 13:23  [Source: ICB]

The US consumer market has taken big steps toward sustainability. How is the chemical industry adaptingto these green changes?

Doris De Guzman/New York


TACKLING SUSTAINABILITY issues is not for the greenhorns. But everybody in the consumer industry, from fast-food services to big-box retailers, have put out their green agenda to assure customers, regulators, shareholders and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that they are walking toward the right, ethical direction.

Most of the key initiatives made by global consumer businesses last year deal with reducing their carbon footprint, such as using or selling more environmentally responsible products reducing carbon dioxide emissions in stores or supply chains phasing out ingredients and raw materials that they deem hazardous reducing waste and pushing their supply chains to improve their own sustainability, among others.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, said that it will even pay more to some suppliers who meet its sustainability standards. "Paying more in the short term for quality will mean paying less in the long term as a company," said CEO and president Lee Scott during its annual store meeting in January.

"We believe our suppliers can even reduce the amount of energy they use to make our products, by 20%. Taking waste and nonrenewable energy out of our supply chain reduces the amount of pollution and greenhouse gases our suppliers send into the atmosphere," Scott said.


Among Wal-Mart's sustainability goals is to reduce 5% of its global packaging by 2013, as well as replace polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in private brand packaging.

Wal-Mart said it will determine how many products will continue to be packaged in PVC and take steps to eliminate it from private brand packages by the third quarter.

Pressured by environmental groups, which claim PVC is toxic and hazardous to both human health and environment, other US retailers such as Sears and Target are also planning to phase out the use of PVC in their private label merchandise and packaging.

"We are intensively assessing our use of PVC plastic and the viability of alternatives and actively pursuing opportunities, in collaboration with our vendors to reduce PVC in our products and packaging," said Target.

Electronics manufacturers Microsoft, Apple, Dell, and Hewlett Packard (HP) have all stated their intentions to phase out PVC in their products. Apple said it plans to completely eliminate the use of PVC as well as brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in its products by the end this year.

Dell also promised to phase out PVC and BFRs in its products in 2009, while HP said it will begin phasing out the chemicals as soon as other technologically feasible alternatives become available.

"HP will not wait until 2009 to begin the phase out but will start to introduce PVC-free and BFR-free products as soon as alternatives that will not compromise product performance and will not adversely impact health or the environment will become available," the company said it its recent report.

Other chemicals of concern for electronics retailers include, among others, cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, chlorinated hydrocarbons and paraffins, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Terphenyls (PCTs).

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, said it is also looking to phase out the chemicals propoxur and permethrin in insecticide products as well as nonylphenol ethoxylates in cleaning products as soon as alternatives are available. Target said all of its apparel with stain management properties will be free of perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) chemicals by mid-2008.


Biodegradable, renewable, natural and organic are green music to consumer businesses' ears. In a recent survey by US-based global market information provider Information Resources Inc. (IRI), around 30% of 22,000 consumers they asked look for eco-friendly products and packaging while 40% search specifically for organic products.

"Organic products are scoring extremely well with consumers," says IRI chief marketing officer Andrew Salzman. "Benefiting from the combination of a 'better for you' association and a 'better for the environment' attribute, the organic designation has moved to the front of consumer consciousness."

In the textile arena, Wal-Mart sales of organic cotton and alternative fibers such as bamboo, soybean and recycled fibers rose by 15-20% last year. In the cosmetic and personal care market, natural and organic beauty products also scored last year, according to a recent survey by US-based Benchmarking Company.

"2007's cosmetic headlines were inundated with fears about parabens, hydroquinone, lead in lipstick and other potential or known toxins," Benchmarking said. "Of those who buy natural and organic brands, 45% said the main reason is because of their fear of chemicals in traditionally made beauty brands."

The cleaning industry has long been the target of green reformulation, says IRI's Salzman.

"One example is green laundry detergent," he notes. "Though currently just 2% of the total detergent market, the growing demand for biodegradable, nontoxic and plant-based products is reflected in a 66% increase in green product sales during the past year where the overall category sales is flat."

Clorox, the US-based global consumer products maker, launched last month its Green Works line of cleaners, which are said to be 99% made from natural ingredients. Clorox said it will deliver 100% natural cleaning products as soon as they can find raw material sources to make natural-based fragrance and color. Wal-Mart said it will be the first retailer to offer the products across the globe.

US-based consumer products company SC Johnson wants to prove their products are safe and environmentally friendly, by posting their Greenlist logo on their product packaging. The company said the Greenlist process rates more than 95% of the raw materials SC Johnson uses, in accordance to their environmental and health profile.


Various industry groups are gearing up again this year to counter the growing fear on chemicals in consumer products, and at the same time showing their proactive approach towards sustainability.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) trade group says it is fully on board with the growing green consumer trend, and has been setting up dialogues with product manufacturers and retailers on how the industry can contribute on their sustainability journey.

"We are working very hard to increase the understanding among our customers and the general public that environmental choices can be quite complicated," says Steven Russel, managing director, ACC plastic division. "In addition to the aspect of the products they advertise, they should think a little bit more deeply on the product's lifecycle aspects and the full impact of their choices," he adds.

For cleaning products, consumer product companies ensure that environmental concerns have always been a huge part of their formulations, says Bill Lafield, spokesman for the Consumer Specialty Products Association (CSPA) trade group.

"What we need to do is to build a better understanding among consumers that the products they've been buying for years have been deemed safe and environment-friendly, even before the green trend burst," says Lafield. "Our companies have always been step-ahead in figuring out what consumer wants and providing it to them. The key is not only being environment-friendly but also being effective, how well the product works and what benefit it provides."

"We're very aware of the impact of retail regulation," says Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA) trade group. "Manufacturers are working very closely with retailers to enhance their business-to-business relationships and provide products with definite sustainability-related benefits." Sansoni cited as examples the introduction of concentrated liquid laundry detergents and cold water detergents.

For the PVC phaseouts, the ACC and the trade group Vinyl Institute both expressed their disappointment with the retailers' and electronic manufacturers' approach and said an ongoing dialogue is currently being taken to reassure retailers of the benefits of PVC.

"Phasing out PVC is not the right policy approach," says Keith Christman, senior director of packaging for ACC's plastics division. "There have been a number of lifecycle assessments for PVC done over the years, and [they] essentially concluded that PVC was comparable to alternatives in terms of environmental performance, and in some cases, even better than alternatives."

"It's very unfortunate that these large retailers have caved in to the pressure from vinyl attack groups," says Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Vinyl Institute. "Everything that they say about PVC is wrong or exaggerated to the point that it's ridiculous. PVC takes less energy to make and has natural fire retardants that you don't find in most other plastics. We expect that retailers will discover that there are performance benefits of PVC that are not easily replaced."

Several retailers and consumer products manufacturers have already found out that being green is not that easy, as they try to find alternatives.

While it seeks a more viable option, SC Johnson says it continues to use ethylenediamine tetra acetic acid (EDTA) in one of their bathroom care products despite being rated zero on its Greenlist due to its poor biodegradability.

"Like all companies, SC Johnson sometimes faces disappointments in our efforts," a company spokesman says. "In recent months, for example, we partnered with a key supplier and spent nearly $1m attempting to replace EDTA. While we were able to identify a more preferable ingredient, the cost of using the new material increased the end product price for consumers so much that the reformulated product was ultimately rejected by our customers."

Even the food service sector is feeling green pains. US-based fast-food chain Chipotle says the biggest obstacle in its sustainability journey is balancing cost and availability of supply.

"With nearly 700 restaurants, we simply need a lot of all the items we buy, and often more sustainably raised food and sustainably produced packaging products are not as widely available," says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. "Cost is also a recurring issue for us. It's a fine line to walk between keeping our food affordable and at the same trying to keep costs associated with our move towards sustainability."

Chipotle says it is currently exploring options for environmentally sustainable paper cups. Arnold says the company is already using cups and basket liners made from unbleached paper bowls and napkins made from post-consumer recycled materials and even gift cards made with corn-based polylactic-acid plastic.

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