Time has come for the new EU Commission to take some uncomfortable decisions
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Time has come for the new EU Commission to take some uncomfortable decisions

By: Anne-Sofie Bäckar, Executive Director, ChemSec

Just the other day I got an e-mail from a woman, a German doctor teaching circular design at a university in Austria. She told me that she, in an effort to make her students better understand the connection between hazardous chemicals and everyday products, has developed a simulation game called circular design. The game asks players to pair everyday products with the toxic substances they commonly include. The students and entrepreneurs that play the game are flabbergasted. They had no idea that toxic chemicals are routinely found in everyday items.

I got a somewhat similar reaction from a friend who read an op-ed I wrote recently, in which I argue that a Swedish tax on hazardous chemicals in clothes could be great for the industry (sorry English readers, in Swedish only). He was seriously surprised by the very premise of my argument.

“Toxic chemicals?! In our clothes!?”

This is a well-educated man. An engineer. Still, the fact that the textile industry is one of the worst offenders in terms of hazardous chemicals was complete news to him.

Now these examples are just anecdotal but I believe they tell a larger story, a story I’m sure many would agree with: People trust that laws and regulators protect them from hazardous substances.

“People trust that laws and regulators protect them from hazardous substances”

Then there is this small group of people who have taken the red pill and uncovered the truth: Laws are not protecting us. Understandably, these people want to know what they can do to avoid products with toxic content.

Well, you could always ask the store clerk if there’s any ethyl 1-(2,4-dichlorophenyl)-5-trichloromethyl-1,2,4-(1H)-triazol-3-carboxylate in the sweater you’re about to buy. I’m sure that will work out fine.

I’m not trying to mock anyone who’s trying to lead a more sustainable life and make informed purchases – that’s great! However, in the case of chemicals in consumer products you almost need a deep understanding of the global supply chain in order to make an informed purchase, and most people (understandably) don’t have any desire to acquire that.

People have too much to keep in mind already: what you eat, how much exercise you are getting, which trash bin to put the light bulbs in, mortgages, the sick granny, the stalled dishwasher, and so on.

“The positive environmental impact of an informed purchase is absolutely dwarfed by an industry wide law”

Now I’ve got to think about ethyl 1,2,3-dichlo-something-something too!??

To me, it’s obvious that policy makers need to step up their game. The transition to safer chemicals cannot solely be driven by consumers trying to make sense of content declarations on the back of shampoo bottles. Besides, the positive environmental impact of an informed purchase is absolutely dwarfed by an industry wide law.

In the EU, the problem is not so much a lack of ambition – reading report after report there are a lot of very nice words – but looking back there has been very little action the last couple of years.

Regrettably, the outgoing Commission spent most of its time evaluating and stalling legislative processes connected to chemicals. Yes, substantial resources were directed to chemical issues, but evaluations, assessments, screenings, public consultations, conferences and workshops are not outputs and improvements per se. They may contribute to valuable understanding, but proper change requires more than that – it requires uncomfortable decisions.

I’m sorry to say but this cannot entirely be left up to industry, because without proper legislation the incentives to change are not that strong.

I know a lot of brands that put enormous efforts into designing great products; sleek looks, good functionality, cost effective manufacturing, safer chemicals, and so on. But there are also an even larger number of companies who make sure their products look and feel great, sure, but in terms of chemicals they hardly even reach compliance levels.

To me, it’s a mystery. Why go through all the other design steps so meticulously only to screw up the chemical part? It’s like creating a beautiful birthday cake, strawberries, jelly, cream and all, only to put some surströmming on top of it before serving.

ChemSec, UNEP, and the authors of about half a dozen EU Commission funded reports all agree: The only way to change this behavior is by tightening up legislation and using existing frameworks more effectively.

We have all the necessary facts to justify serious political action. Taking these decisions will most definitely be uncomfortable, and it will lead to difficulties for some companies – especially for those who are relying on substances of very high concern instead of investing in substitution. But it’s necessary.

Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Anne-Sofie Bäckar
Executive Director, ChemSec