Retail giant Amazon's promise of a chemicals management policy this year will have a big influence on the market, but its e-commerce business model will prove a challenge when it comes to getting third-party product sellers to adhere to it, say US NGOs and business groups.
The company announced in 2017 that it would launch its chemical policy – the first by a solely e-commerce business – this year, but it has not said exactly when it will do this.
Boma Brown-West, senior manager of the business programme at US NGO the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told Chemical Watch: "One of Amazon’s biggest hurdles could be demonstrating that it can influence its large third-party seller population to adhere to its chemicals policy, when it doesn’t have the traditional buyer-seller relationship that brick and mortar retailers have."
If, she added, Amazon is able to address this and establish a chemicals policy that commits to clear time-bound goals, then "I could see the retailer having a real impact on the marketplace."
Similarly, Joel Tickner, director of the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3), a cross-sectoral, business-to-business network of companies and other organisations, said: "The Amazon model of e-commerce, particularly of third-party sellers – that is becoming the norm with other retailers selling online – will create significant challenges in terms of extending chemicals policies beyond own brands to a dispersed network of smaller and larger resellers."
'Online retailers, like their brick and mortar peers, need to hold suppliers accountable for reducing the use of chemicals of high concern in the products they sell on their virtual shelves,' Mark Rossi, Clean Production Action
And Mark Rossi, executive director of US NGO Clean Production Action, the team behind the Chemical Footprint Project, said retailers that are successful in reducing their chemical footprints are setting clear goals for suppliers, both brands and private labels, to meet and then holding those companies accountable to the goals.
"Online retailers, like their brick and mortar peers, need to hold suppliers accountable for reducing the use of chemicals of high concern in the products they sell on their virtual shelves," he said.
Size and reach
The company’s size and global reach in terms of product sales makes its development and implementation of a chemicals policy hugely significant. Amazon last year recorded net sales of almost $180bn.
However, it has been criticised for its lack of chemicals management and came bottom of a 2016 'report card', ranking US retailers on their actions to eliminate chemicals in consumer products. The report card has been produced for the past two years by Mind the Store, a campaign run by the coalition Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.
In last year's report card, the company ranked 14th out of 30 companies and scored 30.5 points out of a possible 135.
Mike Schade, Mind the Store director, said: "We are confident that Amazon will develop a chemicals policy that ensures the products they sell don’t contain harmful chemicals. Given the company’s innovation, resources and market power, the company can have a big impact on the health of its consumers."
David Levine, co-founder and CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a policy group representing a network of more than 250,000 businesses, told Chemical Watch Amazon's plan to launch a policy is part of a trend of more businesses creating products that meet safer chemical criteria – and the growing demand of consumers.
Professor Tickner said that those being developed by major retailers to date have played a significant role in signalling demand for safer chemistry. "This has in turn driven the growth of green chemistry initiatives within brands and chemical manufacturers."
"Amazon's chemicals policy – the first of a solely e-commerce retailer – will only augment these demand signals and hopefully investments in green chemistry," said Professor Tickner.
Ms Brown-West said an effective policy sets clear time-bound goals on ingredient transparency within the supply chain and to consumers, and on safer products via removal of chemicals of concern and prevention of regrettable substitutes. Equally important, she said, is a plan to measure and demonstrate progress to consumers and the business.
Amazon declined to respond to Chemical Watch's questions asking for details about its policy and how it plans to address the challenge of ensuring its third-party sellers adhere.