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E-commerce product safety pledge 'not enough', say NGOs

Products - Computer typing © Brian Jackson -

NGOs have welcomed a commitment by four e-commerce retailers and the European Commission to remove dangerous products from sale more rapidly, but said more action was needed to protect consumers from hazardous chemicals in products bought online. 

The retailers, Alibaba, Amazon, eBay and Rakuten's French unit, this month signed a ‘product safety pledge' to respond to notifications on dangerous products from EU member state authorities within two working days and take action on notices from customers within five working days.

NGO ChemSec's communications manager, Peter Pierrou, told Chemical Watch it had been "a long time coming" for e-commerce sites to enforce stricter rules with their third party sellers. 

"Unfortunately there have been worrying reports during the last years, showing presence of banned chemicals in products bought online," he said.

But one problem with the new commitment is that the burden of proof is on the customers and authorities, he added.

"It is up to them to alert the websites about potentially harmful products. Ideally products with hazardous content shouldn’t be allowed on these marketplaces in the first place," he said.

High testing costs

Michael Warhurst, of the UK NGO CHEM Trust, said he welcomed the commitment but raised concerns about how unsafe products would be identified.

"Some conventional retailers do their own tests on the products that they sell, but there is no sign that the online retailers are willing to take on this responsibility," he said.

Public authorities are only able to test "a very small percentage of products on the market, due to the cost and varying commitments by different governments across the EU," he added.

Safety testing of products, in particular for chemical safety, should be "given higher priority around the EU, and there should be more focus on the responsibility of all retailers and importers to be ensuring that their products are in line with EU laws," Dr Warhurst said.

Transparency call

Earlier this year, the Danish Consumer Council warned against buying cosmetics from the US website after researchers purchased products non-compliant with EU Regulation.

Claus Jørgensen, senior project manager at the council’s ‘Think Chemicals’ initiative told Chemical Watch that although the product safety pledge was positive, one of the biggest online retailers and thousands of other e-shops were missing from the list.

The Danish Consumer Council is calling for more transparency in the use of chemicals in consumer goods, including a mandatory full declaration of the chemical content in toys.

"What really needs to be done is for the producers of consumer goods to not only abide by the law, (the are the ones producing illegal, potentially dangerous products) but they also need to inform their buyers of the chemicals they use, so that that they can make an informed choice," he said.

Also, to achieve a circular economy, he said, it was necessary to know what chemicals are used and where.

"Today that knowledge only resides with the producers and they are not sharing this information in sufficient quantities," he said.

‘Double standard’

Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director at the US NGO Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said that although the commitment was good news for the European market, it would not protect consumers in the US and around the world who could buy the same products containing harmful chemicals.

"Online retailers that pull products from online sales in Europe for toxicity concerns should then do the same in the US and globally. There should not be a double standard where a toxic product is prohibited in one market but then for sale in another," he said.

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