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Top 3 Lessons From Walmart's Bold New Chemical Policy

Walmart's new policy signals a sea change for companies: complying with regulatory requirements is no longer enough; consumer demand has grown too loud to ignore.
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The world's largest retailer sent a shot across the bow of the chemical industry last week with new rules requiring companies selling cosmetics and cleaning products to fully disclose ingredients and eliminate a priority list of hazardous chemicals.

Walmart's new chemical policy sends a loud and clear message to the market: People don't want to buy toxic products.

The list of priority chemicals has not been released to the public -- ironic, considering Walmart's call for greater transparency -- but we can guess at likely suspects from Procter & Gamble's recent announcement that it is dropping phthalates and triclosan. Johnson & Johnson is also on record with plans to eliminate phthalates, triclosan, parabens and formaldehyde -- chemicals consumer groups have been pressuring companies for years to remove.

While we're left guessing at the chemicals, and wondering how meaningful the fragrance disclosure requirements will be, we know one thing for certain: This is a huge victory for the millions of people who are demanding safer products. Walmart's new policy signals a sea change for companies: complying with regulatory requirements is no longer enough; consumer demand has grown too loud to ignore.

From my perspective, having worked for more than 10 years on efforts to shift the beauty industry to safer chemicals, Walmart's new chemicals policy offers three big takeaway lessons.

1) Advocacy campaigns work: Walmart would not have taken this bold step were it not for 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; allies Black Women for Wellness, Cancer Schmancer, Teens Turning Green, WEACT for Environmental Justice, Coming 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 clear that toxic chemicals in our air, water, food and household products can impact our health in subtle yet profound ways. Just this week, the Breast Cancer Fund released a review of the scientific literature on bisphenol A (BPA), indicating that the chemical found in most canned foods 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, personal care products often contain dozens of toxic chemicals, as do many of the products 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 am so happy to have worked with all these fine nonprofit groups, inspiring people and the tens of thousands of people 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 champion for safe cosmetics, rock star Kristi Marsh, put it after seeing the Walmart announcement on the list serve: "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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