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12th September 2017
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Chemical footprint

Neil Eisberg, 13 September 2017

Most of us should by now be aware of carbon footprinting, calculating the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of a particular individual, organisation, or community, and therefore focused on energy consumption and efficiency, but a new US footprinting approach has turned its attention to  chemicals.

Now chemical companies are well aware of the issues surrounding chemicals management, as C&I reports from the Helsinki Chemical Forum have discussed over recent years  (see p30 for the 2017 report), and the increasing impact of regulations like REACh has heightened the focus on potential hazardous substances. In response, green chemistry principles have been increasingly applied by the industry and its distributors. Among downstream customers and users of chemicals, however, the picture is much more fragmented, despite legislation like REACh requiring dissemination of information  down through supply chains.

One thing REACh does not do, though, is track what those downstream users are doing about their use of chemicals. So while some major corporates and smaller companies, including retailers, like Walmart in the US, for example, and sportswear manufacturers, like Adidas, have announced and conducted programmes to reduce their use of potentially hazardous materials, there is no common approach to monitor their progress; only their corporate announcements give details regarding what has been achieved.

So in the US along has come the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP), which has recently published its second annual report, saying that ‘ chemical footprinting is moving to the mainstream’.
The CFP aims to act as a third-party standard to evaluate how suppliers manage chemical risks, and so far 24 companies, focused on consumer products, construction materials, healthcare suppliers, and service companies,  including jean manufacturer Lev Strauss, consumer and healthcare suppliers Johnson & Johnson and Becton Dickinson, and IT hardware provider, HP (formerly Hewlett Packard),  as well as Adidas and Walmart, have participated. These companies have agreed to voluntarily measure, manage and disclose their chemical use in production and operation.
As report authors expressed it: ‘For the first time ever, companies and quantitatively measuring and reporting their chemical footprint.’

The companies were evaluated on four key areas: management strategy, covering the scope of their policies and their integration into business strategy, accountability and employee incentives; chemical inventory – the efforts made to identify chemicals of high concern in the company’s products, data collected from suppliers, and systems for managing the data; footprint measurement, involving the evaluation of the goals set by the company to reduce the use of high risk chemicals, efforts to establish a baseline footprint and measuring progress as well as processes used to assess and utilise safer alternatives; and disclosure and verification, covering the extent to which the company discloses the chemicals in its products beyond regulatory requirements, and reveals those measurements to the CFP.
So what have the report authors discovered?

These four areas were covered by 20 questions scored to a maximum of 100 points, with the highest score in 2016 being 92 out of 100, with an average of 49 points, up from 41 points in 2015, although a different set of companies were involved in 2015. The 11 companies common to both studies improved their overall scores by 20%.
Across the key areas, the highest scores were for chemical inventories, which with an average percent of points of 65% are said to indicate that companies are adopting Restrictive Substances Lists (RSLs), collecting data on chemicals in products and their supply chains and engaging with suppliers in these efforts.

An average of 52% was scored in both management strategy and footprint measurement, demonstrating a continuing improvement in the integration of chemicals policies into corporate policies, and collection of data to facilitate the measurement of reductions in chemicals of high concern.
Disclosure and verification lags behind the other three indications with an average of just 20%, showing that companies are slow to publicly share their progress towards environmentally sound chemical management policies and practices, says the report.

There was little difference between the scores of publicly traded or privately held companies, but there were differences in terms of company size. ‘Large companies scored highest on average, followed by small and then medium-sized companies,’ according to the report.
Among manufacturers of formulated products, however, there was essentially no difference in overall scores between large and small companies, with large companies scoring only incrementally higher  - there were no medium sized companies covered by the report. Small companies selling formulated products did, however, score higher than large companies selling only articles.
Notably, the 11 companies selling formulated products scored higher on average, at around 59%, compared with the 13 companies selling only articles scoring an average of 41%. As the report notes, ‘this is only to be expected as chemical ingredients are core to their business. They specify the chemicals in their products and governments often regulate the labelling of these ingredients.’

While the CFP report only looks at the US, a number of the participating companies do operate globally. With increasing societal interest in sustainability and chemicals management, it will therefore be interesting to see whether this chemical footprint approach travels to European companies, and indeed the rest of the world.

For further information, visit www.chemicalfootprint.org

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