ChemSec is an environmental NGO with a long history of working closely with the brands, retailers, chemical producers and institutional investors at the forefront of corporate sustainability. In this document we have tried to summarise our knowledge and experiences that are useful for the discussion at the first High-Level Roundtable on the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability.
The Chemicals Strategy gives clear direction on how the transition towards safe and sustainable chemicals should be achieved. Many European companies are already well on their way towards sustainability, fully in line with the Commission’s Chemicals Strategy. A fully realised and implemented Chemicals Strategy will greatly support their work and ambitions for this ongoing transition.
Safe and sustainable by design
First of all, it is paramount to establish a clear definition for what a safe and sustainable chemical really is. In ChemSec’s opinion, a chemical that is safe and sustainable by design must be non-toxic, use less energy and be recyclable, in order to facilitate a non-toxic circular economy. Chemicals that are classified as carcinogenic or persistent and toxic, for example, can never be classified as sustainable, no matter how great the products they are used in. Referring to these types of substances as safe would simply be paradoxical.
The European Environmental Agency (EEA) recently published a briefing, summarised by ChemSec, on how to approach the definition of safe and sustainable by design. Additionally, the H&M Group recently presented its view on how to define safe and sustainable by design, both being very much in line with ChemSec’s view.
The transition is already happening – you can speed it up
As mentioned above, many European brands and retailers are already on the path towards sustainability, fully in line with the Commission’s Chemical Strategy for Sustainability. This means that these companies have great ambitions to reduce their impact on our environment and health. One of the main challenges for these companies is to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in products and supply chains. They are struggling to find suitable alternatives to hazardous chemicals and are therefore asking EU policymakers to put stricter regulations in place for chemicals. They are doing this because, historically, regulation and particularly anticipation of regulation have spurred on the innovation of safer alternatives. This fact, along with several other benefits of chemical substitution, is shown in the ChemSec report The Bigger Picture.
There are several reasons for wanting to reduce the use of problematic substances in products. Health, environmental protection and increased recyclability are obvious reasons, but another factor is that these chemicals pose a financial risk for companies. A good example of this are PFAS chemicals, which is a large group of chemicals that many brands would like to phase out. But even if they have this ambition, companies struggle to get the right information from their suppliers and to find suitable alternatives. If regulators were to restrict the whole PFAS group, it would give clear incentives for alternatives to be developed. As part of ChemSec’s corporate PFAS movement we have gathered a growing number of international companies that are asking regulators to do exactly that: to restrict all PFAS chemicals.
At the very beginning of the value chain in the chemicals industry, there is already strong potential to move towards safe and sustainable chemicals. This is one of the main takeaways from ChemSec’s sustainability ranking of the 35 largest chemical producers in the world, in which many of the top performers are based in the EU.
Why isn’t substitution happening at a faster pace? The connection between toxic chemicals and sustainability is rather complex. Often it is the same producer that manufactures both problematic substances and safer alternatives. Decades of neglected regulatory attention have meant that problematic substances represent the bulk of profits today. New, stricter chemicals legislation can increase market demand for safer alternatives and decrease the dominance of hazardous chemicals, thereby pushing producers to scale up production of safer alternatives.
Even now, we can see that chemical producers that are leading the way in non-toxic chemistry are favoured by investors and the stock market. Investors are becoming increasingly aware of hazardous chemicals, and we expect that investors will divest from companies that produce these substances in a near future, much like they have acted on greenhouse gas emissions. And at the other end of the spectrum, the stock prices of PFAS producers will be in a race to the bottom.
Policy tools supporting the transition to safe and sustainable chemicals
To support the transition towards more sustainable chemical alternatives, the EU needs to support the innovative companies that are leading the way. But this also means that not every company should, or could, be saved at any cost. If we are to build a strong and resilient industry, policy makers must have the courage to take uncomfortable decisions
The need for the transition towards safe and sustainable alternatives has been clearly laid out in a number of reports during recent years. It is obvious that what we need now is action, not more studies.
The Chemicals Strategy is very clear in its ambition to make the regulation more effective, and it also lists a number of actions, for example:
- To extend the generic approach to risk management to ensure consumer products do not contain hazardous chemicals.
- To propose new hazard classes and criteria in the CLP regulation to address environmental toxicity more effectively.
All the actions listed in the Chemicals Strategy are needed to support the transition towards safe and sustainable chemicals.
The REACH chemicals legislation is well formulated and very much in line with the Chemicals Strategy. The problems with REACH relate more to its implementation. If the implementation were to be revised and brought in line with the Chemicals Strategy, REACH would be much more effective.
ChemSec recently wrote a letter to Commissioner Breton concerning the need to improve the REACH authorisation system. It is a highly valuable system with the potential to both protect EU citizens and our environment from Substances of Very High Concern AND drive industry towards safe and sustainable chemistry. Again, very much in line with the Chemicals Strategy.
The essential use concept, which makes sure that hazardous chemicals are only allowed when their use is essential for society, not in the entire range of consumer products, is included in the Chemicals Strategy. In ChemSec’s view, this is a very important concept that can help to make regulation more effective. ChemSec has developed a strategy for how to interpret and implement the essential use concept to make sure it delivers what it is intended to do.