The REACH proposals were published in October (ENDS Report 346, pp 51-53 ). They remain hugely contentious, with the chemical industry branding them disproportionately expensive and damaging to Europe's competitiveness, while environmental organisations maintain that they will stimulate innovation and produce substantial health and environmental benefits.
Much less has been heard from retailers, but the opening session of the Science and Technology Committee's inquiry into the Commission's proposal on 19 January revealed powerful support for REACH from the sector.
Mike Barry, sustainable development manager for Marks & Spencer, said that retailers were already bearing heavy costs as a result of poor regulation of chemicals - by having innovation stifled because of uncertainty about the safety of chemicals they want to use, by having to track chemicals in global supply chains, and "because of the sheer man hours we put into phasing out of chemicals of concern."
"One of the reasons we support REACH so much," said Mr Barry, "is that we just see madness at the end of this. We sell 34,000 consumer products...If you have to track every one of those back across the globe to find out which chemicals are being used, the costs and the burdens to the retail sector are huge, and therefore we would like to see one, trusted, robust system in the middle for us all to use and share the costs across."
According to Nigel Smith, CSR policy director for the British Retail Consortium, much of the sector was "full of confusion" about how to handle the implications of REACH. At the same time, it is under pressure from environmental organisations to withdraw hazardous substances from its products. The BRC is seeking to help member companies by developing a definitive list of 25-30 chemicals which they need to address in their supply chains in an effort to be more proactive ahead of REACH.
Countering the chemical industry's claims that REACH will be damaging to competitiveness, Mr Barry argued that it will drive innovation and help chemical manufacturers.
"The European chemical industry...needs to stay ahead of a very competitive marketplace," he said. "If it stands still and just keeps on trying to churn out products with the same regulatory system that we have now, it will be swamped. There will always be somebody cheaper elsewhere in the world...for instance, the Far East."
Mr Barry also wants REACH to contain "fairly tough" rules on substitution of the most hazardous substances, aligning himself with environmental groups.
Retailers did not want uncertainty, he said. "I would rather be told: 'I am afraid, Mr M&S, you must get out of chemicals'. It is a pain in the arse, but in five years I know where I stand. What I do not want is: 'Well, it might be bad, it might be good, we are not sure.'" Mr Barry conceded that REACH was "hugely imperfect", but it was also the least bad option on the table. "The worst outcome for us would be if REACH was watered down so much that we ended up bearing lots of costs of implementation but at the end of the day consumers ended up not trusting chemicals."
Mr Barry also admitted that he did not know how retailers were going to assure themselves that chemicals in imported products met the REACH criteria. The issue was Marks & Spencer's "biggest fundamental concern" about the proposals, and "a huge sword of Damocles" hanging over the sector. Retailers would be very reluctant to form consortia to deal with chemicals in imported goods, but might be forced to do so by the costs involved.
REACH, he suggested, was important to the chemical industry's relationship with society. The industry was a great economic success story, but "it is on the back foot every day of its life because systematically it has mismanaged the whole concept of trust in the last twenty years.
"To put itself on the front foot and access the benefits of the 21st century, it has got to rebuild trust in itself, and REACH is a necessary compromise."
Earlier, the Committee was told by Andrew Lee, WWF's director of campaigns, that the social and environmental benefits of REACH would exceed the costs to industry by an order of magnitude. The claim appears to rest on an economics study carried out for WWF which made a series of dubious assumptions (ENDS Report 344, pp 22-23 ).
Mr Lee also disputed suggestions that REACH might drive safe chemicals off the market. "If there is a chemical which is safe, produced in very small volume and for which there is an overwhelming need because it has a unique property that is needed for something that is very important, the market will deliver the result because the price mechanism will operate...
"If, however, it is a chemical where the use is marginal or there are substitutes, then the market will price those chemicals out and some companies...may either have to diversify or stop producing those chemicals." Chemical manufacturers may feel this to be a rather casual way of dismantling their portfolios for no environmental or health benefit.
Mr Lee expressed concern about the Government's position on REACH. The Environment Department was broadly supportive behind the scenes, but the Prime Minister had portrayed the proposed regime as a competitiveness problem. Too much weight was being given to cost and workability issues and not enough to the benefits of REACH, and "the regulation has already been watered down to a level where it is in danger of not delivering what it needs to do."