Mothercare reacts to chemicals debate

While companies such as B&Q, Boots and Sainsbury's, which have engaged in environmental management for some years, might have been expected to develop hazardous substance strategies, it is more surprising to find Mothercare now among the group.

It was FoE's campaign against retailers, launched a few months after Mothercare was demerged from BHS and introduced an intensive strategy to rebuild its brand, which forced it to address the issue.

Mothercare has no environmental manager. So when FoE sent out its questionnaire last summer it ended up on the desk of divisional buying director Gemma Whiteside. "To me it wasn't important," she told the seminar, "so I put it on a pile and hoped it would go away. Then the chief executive went ballistic when FoE published its report and we found we were on the red list and facing the threat of protests and boycotts."

The issue is crucial to Mothercare because it sells products for babies and young children who are potentially more vulnerable to toxic substances. With an estimated 80% of all pregnant women using its stores, it is a business risk the company must manage, she said, otherwise "the loss of customer confidence in the brand is obvious."

Looking at FoE's questions about whether its products contained certain chemicals, the company realised that it had much to learn and began discussions with environmental groups. It then sent a questionnaire, based on the 27 substances of concern listed under the Ospar Convention, to all its suppliers asking if they used any of them.

The results led it to examine PVC in particular, a material widely used in its products. "We applaud all the work done by the European PVC industry, but as we buy an awful lot of merchandise from China we must make sure they are working to the same standards as the EU," said Ms Whiteside.

Like B&Q, Mothercare is considering a range of options including phase-out, substitution, offering alternative products alongside the originals, or leaving the product as it is. It intends to test demand for alternatives to seven or eight PVC products, and is changing its bib-backs to an alternative material that is no more expensive.

Ms Whiteside is as pragmatic about chemicals as her colleagues in other retailers. "At the end of the day it's not just the science - we have to think about all the impacts on our business from investors, environmental groups, customers and the media."

Because she is not based in a separate environmental department, it has been relatively straightforward keeping the company's buyers - many of them "young and keen" - on board. A harder job has been to maintain the support of the board at a time when it is beset with so many issues.

A seminar for suppliers got "a great response, especially from the importers who are already way ahead in their thinking." However, a few of the UK manufacturers were dismissive, she says, with a "you can't teach us anything" attitude.

FoE has now shifted Mothercare to its amber list, and the company will feel less nervous about the group's imminent new league tables. The issue has also prompted a review of environmental performance across the business.

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