Ten Trends from 2013: Toxics Timebomb

24 Dec 2013Mohammed Al-Shawaf

The EU has placed a moratorium on neonicotinoids, pesticides linked to declines in bee populations around the world that put at risk bees’ roles in pollinating three quarters of the world’s crops. Flickr image by nicora.

This is post 10 of 10. See previous.

For over 25 years, companies have valued our ability to serve as their early warning system—to interpret emerging issues and trends in the sustainable development agenda and help them anticipate, understand and respond to shifts in the business landscape. In 2013, SustainAbility re-launched a dedicated function to regularly track and interpret “what’s next”—our Ten Trends of 2013 series is the distillation and public output of our thinking over the year.

More than ten years after the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) study of hormone-disrupting chemicals—commonly found in agricultural pesticides and household items like plastics and cosmetics—turned up “weak” evidence on the connection to human health, much has changed. In 2013, when WHO and UNEP refreshed their study, a panel of 16 scientists from 10 countries found “emerging evidence for adverse reproductive outcomes’ and mounting evidence for effects on thyroids, brains and metabolism.” The report concludes that we are now facing a “global threat” that all national governments should address.

Some governments have heeded the warning, albeit slowly and in part. In 2013, we’ve seen the EU place a moratorium on neonicotinoids&, pesticides linked to declines in bee populations around the world that put at risk bees’ roles in pollinating three quarters of the world’s crops. What’s more, the European Food Safety Authority warned that neonicotinoids may harm the development of unborn babies and called for cutting maximum exposure levels. Beyond “neonics,” the U.S. FDA has proposed a rule requiring manufacturers to prove antibacterial soaps are safe.

In spite of these hard-fought steps, government actions are neither fast enough, nor sufficient enough to address the full spectrum of risk. Enter retailers—and both campaigning and collaboration-inclined NGOs—that have shown increasing acceptance of their role as watchdog. First in April, health and environmental groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Breast Cancer Fund launched a national campaign calling for 10 major retailers, including Walmart, Target and Costco, to remove all products containing hazardous chemicals from their shelves. Said Andy Igrejas of the NGO Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, “’The [US] federal government isn’t minding the store, so the stores need to mind the store.’” Additionally, a coalition led by the Environmental Defense Fund launched The Commons Principles for Alternatives Assessment— a guide for retailers and product manufacturers to reduce hazardous chemicals in their products. That combination of mounting pressure from stakeholder groups and emerging tools and resources are behind two of the world’s largest retailers, Target and Walmart, taking on the role of “retail regulators.” As an excellent series in Guardian Sustainable Business detailed this year, their approaches may be different—Walmart will ban a predetermined set of chemicals from product ingredients while Target will use a ratings system to spur suppliers to provide healthier products—but the message to product manufacturers is straightforward: Take steps now to eliminate chemicals of concern if you want to be on our shelves. Procter & Gamble is clearly listening, promising in September to eliminate a number of controversial ingredients from its products, while insisting they are safe.

Authoritative science alone will not be able to dictate what commonly found chemicals get banned and which do not. As the WHO/UNEP report states, “The vast majority of chemicals in current commercial use have not been tested at all.” Much of the burden will continue to fall on businesses to self-regulate. It raises an interesting (and inevitable) question about other controversial ingredients, like GMOs, with still-inconclusive evidence about health impacts and what role companies will play in filling in regulatory gaps. Whole Foods’ decision to drop Greek yogurt maker Chobani, in part because of the presence of GM ingredients fed to their dairy cows, may preview an issue that will tick louder in 2014.

If you’re interested in learning more about our trends service for your business, contact Mohammed Al-Shawaf or Michael Sadowski.

This is post 10 of 10. See previous.

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