Own-brand retailers still lead on hazardous chemicals

IKEA, Marks and Spencer and other own-brand retailers are still leading the way in removing "risky chemicals" from their products, according to the latest Friends of the Earth survey.1 Mothercare, Toys R Us and other children's retailers have made least progress over the past two years.

FoE began surveying retailers about their chemicals policies four years ago, looking at actions taken to remove substances such as phthalates, brominated flame retardants, bisphenol A and alkyl phenols (ENDS Report 307, p 23 ). A survey undertaken in 2001 praised IKEA, Body Shop and Marks and Spencer for getting to grips with suspected endocrine disrupters, but chastised Tesco and Somerfield, among others, for doing little (ENDS Report 325, p 32 ).

This year's survey, which includes the surfactants perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanyl sulphonate (PFOS), paints a similar picture - with IKEA and other own-brand retailers scoring highest (see tables).

The survey is the last that FoE intends to carry out because it feels the exercise has lost its "novelty value".

"Broadly speaking, those [retailers] that took actions before are now doing more, those that didn't - like Asda and Morrisons - still aren't," said FoE's chemicals campaigner Karine Pellaumail.

In general, scores are lower than before due to changes in the way they were calculated. Retailers no longer score points for saying they would let the public know - if asked - which products contain hazardous chemicals. They also score fewer points if they are only tackling chemicals in their own-brand products.

However, the scores are now more pertinent to particular retail sectors. Supermarkets, for example, were not scored on substances such as brominated flame retardants or alkyltins because they are used in very few of the products they sell.

IKEA topped the survey with a score of 86%, having eliminated all "risky chemicals" from its products except phthalates from its electrical cord, bisphenol A from its "clear bottles", and PFOA and PFOS. In each case it is working on alternatives.

The sharp drop in Mothercare's rankings - from 7 to 16 - is notable. According to Ms Pellaumail, the company simply "didn't show any evidence that they were working to alternatives." The company's response was filled out by a product technologist, whereas most other companies relied on corporate social responsibility or consumer affairs managers.

Mothercare's only good point, according to the survey, is the removal of alkyltins from own-brand products. The company refused to comment on the report.

Argos also showed a marked decline in its ranking, dropping from 10 to 14. CSR manager Laurence Singer expressed surprise at the change, given that it has removed phthalates and brominated flame retardants from products which could pose a risk to children. He said that the company had also worked with the British Retail Consortium to develop a "chemicals toolkit" to help retailers decide which chemicals they should act on.

"Because we sell a lot of branded products, we're not the controllers of our own destiny, unlike those companies which sell predominantly own-brand products," Mr Singer said.

Several companies have improved since the last survey - notably Woolworths, which issued a chemicals strategy in September 2003, and Waitrose.

The Co-op's score is slightly misleading. Since completing the survey, it has banned 29 chemicals from its own-brand products, including polycyclic and nitro musks and bisphenol A, and replaced over 50 product lines as a result. It is also working to eliminate PVC and has appointed an expert panel to continually review its chemicals policy.

Disappointingly for FoE, the 11 companies that either did not return the survey or provided little information included Homebase and Sainsbury's, which have both signed the group's "risky chemicals pledge" (ENDS Report 332, p 34 ).

The report suggests that the Government should take some blame for the lack of action. Only the Early Learning Centre and Waitrose said they got "adequate" support from the Government in moving away from such chemicals. Debenhams said it got "no support at all".