Wal-Mart on Thursday announced it will require suppliers to disclose or eliminate some chemicals found in cosmetics, household cleaners and beauty products, marking one of the most significant victories yet for Bay Area advocacy groups that have led a decade-long national battle for safer cosmetics.

With its new policy, unveiled at the company's annual Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting, Wal-Mart becomes the first major retailer to begin phasing out some potentially harmful ingredients found in everyday products such as lipstick and shampoo. With the massive reach of Wal-Mart, some retail experts said the move could spark bold changes in the cosmetics industry.

The Wal-Mart store in San Ramon is seen at its grand opening on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012.  Walmart on Thursday announced a new ban on some chemicals found
The Wal-Mart store in San Ramon is seen at its grand opening on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2012. Walmart on Thursday announced a new ban on some chemicals found in cosmetics, household cleaners and beauty products. (JIM STEVENS/Staff archives)

Wal-Mart's announcement was widely celebrated in the Bay Area, which in many ways has served as the front line in the battle between the cosmetic industry and consumer and environmental advocacy groups. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the leading advocacy coalition for eliminating potentially cancer-causing chemicals from cosmetics, is headquartered in San Francisco.

"It's been a decade-long process. It's been step by step," said Stacy Malkan, co-founder of the campaign. "It was resistance for lots of years, and then some victories here and there, but consumer concern has reached a level where it can't be ignored."


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Wal-Mart's new policy targets about 10 chemicals for reduction or elimination from consumable products sold in its stores over the next five years. Beginning in January, Wal-Mart will begin monitoring chemical levels and work with suppliers to find safe substitutes. In January 2015, the retailer will require that suppliers post online a list of ingredients in items they sell at the company's stores. And by 2016, it will begin to publicly report on suppliers' progress in meeting the new chemical restrictions. Suppliers that don't remove certain potentially harmful chemicals from their products will be required to label packages with a warning.

"Our intention is not to cut people off or cut suppliers off," Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of sustainability, said on a call with reporters. "We're not at the point where we stop carrying a product because of a sustainability issue."

She declined to say which chemicals would be targeted because the company wants to first notify suppliers. But the list of 10 or so is just a fraction of the 80,000-plus chemicals Wal-Mart says are used to manufacture personal care products, household cleaners and makeup.

Wal-Mart spent about a year working on the policy in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Defense Fund, a national nonprofit advocacy group with offices in San Francisco and Sacramento. Some retail experts say the retailer's initiative could spawn some of the first significant changes in cosmetic manufacturers and retailers across the globe.

Wal-Mart's "influence on their supply chain and sustainability is well known," said David Graham Hyatt, professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas who led a number of case studies on the company. "It seems clear we are moving toward more supply chain visibility."

And while the Bay Area has a plethora of organic and all-natural cosmetic retailers, options are harder to find in much of the country, said Judi Shils, founder and executive director of Sausalito-based organization Teens Turning Green. But given Wal-Mart's 11,000-store global footprint and massive breadth of suppliers, more "green" cosmetics will likely begin appearing on store shelves everywhere.

"When companies like this make a shift, it's huge. You're influencing Middle America," Shils said.

A 2009 study by global market research firm Mintel found that sales of natural and organic personal care products increased 18 percent between 2006 and 2008, and continued to grow during the recession. In a 2011 survey by professional services firm Deloitte, 57 percent of consumers said that safety was their No. 1 concern when buying personal care products.

Some manufacturers have responded to rising consumer demand for fewer chemical-laden products. Johnson & Johnson began removing some potentially cancer-causing chemicals from baby products in 2011 and will eliminate other chemicals from adult products by 2015. Procter & Gamble announced this month plans to phase out two chemicals -- phthalates and triclosan -- by 2014 from beauty and personal care products. "

Research on these chemicals is far from complete and results are often inconsistent. Some chemicals targeted by advocacy groups are not considered harmful by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the FDA also has limited oversight of the industry -- it cannot approve ingredients in cosmetics, test for safety or recall products -- and relies on research conducted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an arm of industry lobbying group the Personal Care Products Council.

The council, which did not respond to questions about Wal-Mart's announcement, says cosmetics are some of the safest consumable products and that manufacturers "ensure that the amounts of ingredients used are within safety limits that have been established by scientific and regulatory bodies around the world," according to a statement on the council's website.

Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.

a brief history of chemicals and cosmetics

2004: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is formed in San Francisco, growing into a coalition of more than 150 environmental, health care and women's advocacy groups demanding more transparency in cosmetic manufacturing.
2011: Johnson & Johnson announces it will eliminate certain preservatives that release formaldehyde and other chemicals that have been linked to cancer in baby products by 2013.
2012: Johnson & Johnson commits to removing potentially harmful chemicals from all adult products by 2015, becoming the first major consumer products company to make such a widespread commitment.
September 2013: Procter & Gamble announces the elimination of some phthalates and triclosan, chemicals that some advocates say can lead to cancer and reproductive harm.
September 2013: Wal-Mart announces a new chemical policy requiring that suppliers reduce or eliminate of about 10 chemicals commonly used in beauty products, household cleaners and cosmetics. As the world's largest retailer with an expansive global supply chain, the policy is expected to spark bold changes in cosmetic manufacturing and retailing.