Retailers seek tougher measures for chemicals in products

Boots and Marks & Spencer have joined other European retailers in pushing for stronger legal obligations on chemical manufacturers and importers to supply more data on hazardous substances and to substitute them with safer ones. The firms have stepped up lobbying ahead of a year of intensive negotiations on the EU's proposed REACH chemicals registration regime.

This is not the first time that retailers have submitted their opinions on the draft REACH Regulation proposed by the European Commission in 2003 (ENDS Report 346, pp 51-53 ). But it is the first time that they have colluded publicly with other downstream users of chemicals to call upon legislators to do more to make the legislation address the needs of retailers and their customers.

Their calls come as the European Parliament and Member States intensify their negotiations on the proposal with the aim of reaching a first political agreement by the end of the year.

Clothing chain H&M, Boots, M&S and Electrolux each point out that they presently "bear a large financial burden" in trying to find out what is in the preparations and substances they use in their products and to avoid those that they consider to be of concern.

"Without a trusted regulatory system, retailers have had to 'self-regulate' their use of chemicals," they observe. Each of the firms operates a dynamic list of restricted chemicals which they try to avoid in their products. These include groups of substances from brominated flame retardants to phthalates and in some cases PVC.

The result is that: "Hundreds of retailers take their own, potentially conflicting, views on the many thousands of different uses a particular chemical could be put to." In addition, environmental groups have pressed companies voluntarily to restrict chemical use through initiatives such as Greenpeace's "chemical home" website (ENDS Report 354, p 35 ).

Ideally, the companies would like REACH to help harmonise such lists. They also want legislators to gear the REACH system to give consumers and downstream users a "right to know" about the properties of chemicals and articles containing them, so that they can make informed choices.

H&M points to two "monumental" obstacles that it faces in its goal to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals: a lack of information on the chemical composition of articles, and a lack of toxicological data about chemicals, particularly ecotoxicological properties.

The retailers believe that REACH provides an opportunity to vastly improve the availability of such data and to make it more publicly accessible, but key changes to the present draft will be necessary.

Their demands include:

  • More information on chemicals produced in low quantities - less than one tonne.

  • More forceful encouragement of substitution of substances of very high concern by setting demanding hurdles for their authorisation. Under REACH, the highest-risk chemicals will need to be authorised before they can be sold, whereas lower-risk substances do not require authorisation.

    While the present regulation allows high-risk chemicals to be sold if their risks are perceived to be "adequately controlled", H&M believes that "the most cost-effective and the only adequate control measure should be substitution."

    Electrolux points out that as soon as a substance is earmarked for authorisation, retailers will want to avoid using it in their products. M&S and Boots want chemical suppliers to have to state on safety data sheets if "substances of very high concern" - in REACH jargon - are present in products, even at very low concentrations. This, they say, will result in a "marketplace-led desire for substitution" which they feel would be more effective than mandating substitution.

  • A reconsideration of article 6 of REACH which aims to control the risks posed by substances in articles, including imported articles. This clause resorts to defining the risks in terms of whether chemicals are "intended to be released" or are "likely to be released" over certain quantity thresholds during normal use of an article. M&S and Boots believe this clause to be unworkable.

    At a hearing at the European Parliament in January, Mike Barry of M&S proposed an alternative system under which the European Chemicals Agency would issue guidance stipulating for different product groups the chemicals of concern in them and the alternatives available. Subsequently, after sufficient warning, Mr Barry suggests this guidance could be made mandatory. He proposes that the Agency should establish a consultative group of industry representatives, NGOs and regulators in order to carry out such a task.

    However, two European Commissioners present at the hearing gave little encouragement for such a system, saying they believed their own proposal to be workable. Retailers must now hope to persuade MEPs or Member State governments to argue their case.

    Mr Barry warns of a "nightmare scenario" in which companies put hefty resources into implementing REACH only to find that it fails to win consumer confidence. This would mean that they would have to continue to look for other means of assuaging concerns.

    Unless a credible regulatory system is implemented, he predicts, "the current deep societal dissatisfaction with chemicals [could] become a much more troubling consumer concern."

    Any new system must fully involve retailers, he believes. He told a hearing at the European Parliament in January: "We are clear that we can never return to a situation whereby we assumed the regulatory authorities and chemical industry would manage this issue for us."

    The retailers' demands are compiled in a report1 published by the International Chemical Secretariat, a Swedish NGO, together with supporting demands from three associations: the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), water industry body Eureau and the European Community of Consumer Co-operatives (Euro-coop), which includes the UK's Co-op chain.

    Water companies warn that their waste water treatment facilities are not designed to deal with a broad range of substances, many of which occur in low concentrations. Removing these, it says, is "often very difficult and, even if possible, can be a very expensive and energy-consuming option."

    They argue that "companies emitting chemicals that will be discharged to sewer - directly or indirectly via products sold to households - should have an obligation to provide information on the fate and behaviour of substances during treatment."

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