Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg

Target Tightens Grip Over Chemicals in Bid to Make Goods Safer

  • Retailer pushing vendors to ditch some chemicals as well
  • Target’s move follows a similar effort by Wal-Mart last year

Target Corp. introduced a sweeping new policy governing chemicals in products, a move that will push hundreds of suppliers to list ingredients in everything from fragrances to floor cleaner.

The guidelines, due to be unveiled Wednesday, include removing perfluorinated chemicals and flame retardants from textiles in the next five years, as well as eventually disclosing ingredients in all products.

Target’s new rules come amid growing consumer demand for green goods -- whether it’s organic food, natural cosmetics or cleaning products -- that have fewer controversial ingredients. Sales of the retailer’s Made to Matter line, which touts “cleaner” ingredients, rose 30 percent last fiscal year. The move follows a similar effort by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in July, when the world’s largest retailer moved toward banning eight chemical groups, including formaldehyde and triclosan.

Customers “are increasingly concerned about those chemicals in the products that they use,” said Jennifer Silberman, Target’s chief sustainability officer. That’s prompted them to demand greater transparency and access to greener products, she said.

In 2015, Target began encouraging manufacturers to list ingredients and remove hundreds of what it calls “unwanted chemicals,” such as bisphenol A. The company is relying on a sustainable product index, which awards points to greener items, to judge vendors’ wares. The new policy sets a goal of full ingredient disclosure by 2020 in categories consumers encounter most closely: beauty, baby, personal care and cleaning goods. The ultimate aim is disclosure of all ingredients in all products.

Protecting Employees

The retailer also vowed to reformulate products by 2020 without certain chemicals, such as formaldehyde and phthalates. The plan encompasses substances used in the manufacturing process and in and around stores -- like landscaping materials -- to protect workers as well, Silberman said.

Yet, finding safer ingredients isn’t always easy or cheap. In some cases, there may be no alternative, forcing the industry to invent new ingredients. Target plans to invest as much as $5 million to develop products through green chemistry.

Retailers have plenty of reason to change. In a June report, research firm Mintel found that 66 percent of consumers it surveyed said it was important to use environmentally friendly cleaning products, and 63 percent believed ingredients in many cleaning products are unhealthy.

“Target’s new chemical policy commitment and goals will go a long way in driving harmful chemicals out of consumer products,” Mike Schade, of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said in an e-mail. 

Schade, who runs the group’s retail campaign, co-wrote a November report ranking the 11 largest U.S. retailers on their chemical-disclosure policies. Target ranked second-highest, just behind Wal-Mart. Schade said his group will update its ranking later this year.

Veena Singla, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Target’s plan is a move in the right direction.

“Transparency is a key element of the Target policy because you can’t address what you don’t know,” Singla said. “Identifying and removing harmful chemicals is just the first step.”

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