Retailer chemical policies driven by the culture of wellness 

July 18, 2019By Behind the Shelf Blog, Culture of Wellness

By Jen Johnston, CHHC, senior marketing services account manager for the Culture of Wellness blog series

I remember the night well. My husband was out for the evening and I had just put the kids to bed, ready to settle into some mindless Netflix binge watching when a documentary caught my eye instead — The Human Experiment. I flipped it on and quickly heard that “researchers have found more than 300 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies, rendering them pre-polluted even before birth.” What?

I sat through the film with my mouth agape, each scene revealing another horror. I myself trended toward the use of natural personal care products, but I hadn’t yet heard about the pervasive use of potentially harmful chemicals in clothing, furniture, and flooring. Scare tactic or not? I could only give my opinion; however, like many consumers, it was through this movie I first became aware of this issue and of a group called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is one of the watchdog groups working on getting manufacturers to reformulate their products by putting pressure on the retailers who stock them through their Mind the Store initiative. They began in 2009, but before this, unsafe chemicals were already on the minds of some retailers.

CVS, for example, was an early adopter. In 2007, the chain published its first corporate social responsibility report which included a cosmetic safety policy. By the time the 2012 report came out, CVS had phased out parabens and formaldehyde-releasers in all its CVS brand baby care products. It has continued to improve its chemical policies in subsequent years. CVS has shown through its social responsibility reports that it understands the culture of wellness and issues these consumers care about such as sustainability, diversity, and safer products.

By 2014, supply chain transparency as it relates to harmful chemicals seemed to be on everyone’s radar. At the Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, co-hosted by Walmart and Target in September of that year, retail businesses came together to motivate national brands and their suppliers to be more transparent about the chemicals in their products. This one day event morphed into the Beauty and Personal Care Sustainability Project by the Forum of the Future.

Other chains are now getting on board. In November of 2018, The Walgreens Boots Alliance, with more than 18,500 stores globally, announced its new chemical policy which includes a restricted substances list. It includes phthalates, certain parabens, nonylphenol and NP ethoxylates, as well as individual substances such as xylene, toluene, triclosan, and plastic microbeads. The list applies to their private label baby, personal care, and household cleaning products. However, the company is also working with suppliers to have them reformulate by the end of 2021 as well.

It isn’t just mass and chain drug stores committing to selling products that use safer chemicals. Home improvement stores, such as The Home Depot, have their own chemical strategy where they take a stand on banned chemicals in paints, flooring, and insulation. Additionally, cleaners in their Eco Options® program must bear a certification such as Leaping Bunny or Cradle to Cradle Certified. They’ve also expanded organic options in the gardening department. Lowe’s has a safer chemicals policy as well.

Manufacturers operating as retailers, Ethan Allen and Ashley Furniture, removed fire retardants from their furniture in 2015, and Ikea, La-Z-Boy, The Futon Shop, Scandinavian Designs, and Walmart also said they had told vendors to stop adding flame retardants to furniture. This is all due, in part, to pressure put on by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it, wellness is everywhere and touches everything. Today’s conversations about wellness extend far beyond personal care. Fifteen years ago very few people were thinking about healthier furniture or safer insulation. Today consumers are demanding products that fit into their wellness ideals.

Retailers and brands need to ask themselves — will I be an early adopter such as CVS and Target, leading the way and earning the trust of the wellness generation? Or will I take a wait and see approach? Have you noticed the acquisitions of small natural brands by mainstream consumer brands are increasing? Many are waking up to the new normal. Look around and you will soon realize that wellness is permeating every aspect of our consumer culture. How will you set your business apart?