3 Lessons from Walmart’s New Chemicals Initiative

By Stacy Malkan

Today is a day to celebrate our power to move the market. Walmart’s new chemicals initiative is a loud and clear signal to companies that people don’t want to buy products made with toxic chemicals.

The world’s largest retailer will now require companies to reduce or eliminate a priority list of hazardous chemicals from  cosmetics, personal care products  and cleaning products sold in its stores. They will also require full disclosure of product ingredients including some transparency on fragrance.

Walmart has not released the list of priority chemicals, but we can guess at two likely suspects from Proctor & Gamble’s recent announcement that it is dropping phthalates and triclosan. (Whoever wants to leak that list, send it on over!) On the transparency front, the companies will decide how to disclose hidden ingredients, so we’ll see how that goes. We’ll be tracking.

For now, we can say: Let’s celebrate! This is a huge victory for the millions of people who are demanding safer products. It’s a significant step forward on a path so many of you have been traveling for years and even decades. From my perspective, having worked for more than 10 years on efforts to shift the beauty industry to safer chemicals, here are my votes for the three big takeaway lessons of Walmart’s new chemicals policy.

1) Advocacy campaigns work: Today’s announcement wouldn’t have happened without the aggressive corporate campaigns and grassroots organizing efforts of nonprofit organizations such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics coalition, its founding groups Breast Cancer Fund, EWG, Clean Water Action, Women’s Voices for the Earth, Commonweal and Friends of the Earth; and allies Black Women for Wellness, Cancer Schmancer, Teens Turning Green, WEACT for Environmental JusticeComing Clean, Story of Stuff and so many others.  These groups are crucial to our democracy and our future — please support them!

This also would not have happened without every one of you, millions of you who are making conscious choices at the store, contacting companies, starting companies, selling better products, educating your communities, standing up for what’s right. This is an unstoppable movement to protect our families, move the market to saner and safer practices, and change the world.

2) Now we have to double down:  The stakes are high, and keep getting higher. New science, emerging constantly, is making very clear that our health and our children’s health is inextricably tied to the health of the environment around us. Just this week, the Breast Cancer Fund released a report of the scientific literature on bisphenol A (BPA), showing that the chemical found in most canned foods on our supermarket shelves can disrupt fetal development and set the stage for later-life diseases, including breast cancer.

We know too much now to keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them. We know that babies are born with hundreds of toxic chemicals inside their umbilical cord blood.  We know it’s time to clean this mess up. And we know how to win.

The world’s largest corporations are listening, and its time for our voices to get stronger and louder. We have the power to move the market. Let’s keep using it.

3) And take the long view: Walmart’s new policy will force the largest cosmetics corporations (some kicking and screaming, no doubt) down the path to safer chemicals and transparency — and it’s a long road ahead.  The 10 chemicals Walmart is prioritizing are just the tip of the iceberg. As we know from the many reports by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and EWG’s Skin Deep database, dozens of toxic chemicals are commonly found in body-care products of all kinds, as well as the products all around us in our homes.  Check out the Hazardous Hundred Chemicals developed by Safer Chemicals Healthy Families for a good start to the “do not buy” and “do not use” list.

Dealing with chemicals is a huge challenge for corporations. As Walmart pointed out, there are 80,000 chemicals in consumable products today. And we’re just beginning to understand the health effects of a portion of them. As companies move away from hazardous chemicals, they need to make sure they are not jumping from the frying pan into the fire with unknown or worse chemicals. The work of Clean Production Action, particularly the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals, are essential tools for companies that want to take a comprehensive approach to sustainable chemicals management — and there is no other way to do it.

I’m proud to have worked with all these fine nonprofit groups, and with the tens of thousands of you in the Safe Cosmetics network. I’m excited and hopeful that we have turned a corner with corporate relations (thanks EDF for all your fine work with Walmart!) and that there is a sincere effort to build bridges between industry and the advocacy community that have too often been at odds. We have more in common than we have differences and there is too much at stake — all of us want a healthy future where kids are safe from toxic chemicals and babies are born in the healthiest possible conditions.

As one of our Safe Cosmetics champions, rock star Kristi Marsh, put it after seeing the Walmart announcement on our list serve today: “This is breath taking. The potential of this statement to vendors, to businesses, to consumers is the evidence of the momentum gaining power. It’s not over, but I have full faith that green will now decidedly be the new mainstream with continued pushing.  Deep gratitude for every single passionate person on this list.”

Deep gratitude back at you, to all of you. I’m excited to see what’s next.

Stacy Malkan is a co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the award-winning book, “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry.”




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