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Benchmarking to Advance Safer Chemicals Management

Image credit: Radio Flyer

From competitor and public policies to non-profit and investor pressures, there is more demand than ever to advance safer chemicals programs at your company. One proven way to help get on the right course is through benchmarking.

Benchmarking does not need to be a daunting task. In fact, there are tools available to help companies evaluate and compare their safer chemicals performance to standardized criteria. This process can help foster safer chemicals management by driving program changes based on industry best practices and successful management techniques.

Zach Freeze, Senior Director for Sustainability at Walmart, notes that benchmarking is “critical for us to understand where our company and our suppliers are on thejourney to more sustainable chemicals.” By helping guide that journey, benchmarking can contribute to progress in safer chemicals use, risk reduction, and growth and leadership opportunities. For example, sustainable chemicals management is highlighted in Pure Strategies’ 2015 study of sustainability and business value as a key means of reducing regulatory risk.

Benchmarking for chemicals management: 3 steps

Benchmarking for chemicals management involves three basic steps:

  1. identifying the criteria to evaluate against,
  2. evaluating these criteria in your company and other companies, and
  3. developing and implementing a plan to better align your chemicals management with industry best practices.

First is deciding what criteria you want to benchmark to improve your chemicals management policies and practices. Several tools offer detailed suggestions about possible criteria. Notably, the Chemical Footprint Project (CFP) outlines best practices across a variety of industries. CFP’s 20-question assessment tool considers corporate chemical performance, including company policies, management, chemical restrictions beyond compliance, supplier engagement, transparency, disclosure and external collaboration. The tool is publicly available year-round for use as a benchmarking tool and has a formal response submission period from January to March for those that want to participate in the public process, much like CDP.

The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) provides guidance on information that investors are seeking on key material sustainability topics. The standards offer a few industry-specific indicators for sustainable chemicals management that can also be used in a benchmarking assessment. The apparel and footwear industry standard, for example, looks for how a company assesses and manages the risks associated with the chemicals in its products. The SASB standard for building products and furnishings includes risk management and the percentage of products meeting California standards for volatile organic compounds. SASB provides just a few criteria, which are best used in conjunction with other ones, such as CFP’s. The value from SASB indicators is that they may align with investor expectations.

With evaluation criteria identified, the next step is to assess your company and others, but which to include? It is best to look beyond competitors to also assess customers, suppliers and leaders in other industries. Third-party reports can be useful for identifying companies to evaluate.

The Chemical Footprint Project publishes answers received from companies that elected to let their responses be public. In 2018, the following companies published their CFP responses: Beautycounter, BD, Case Medical, GOJO Industries, Humanscale, Levi Strauss & Co., Milliken, Naturepedic, Radio Flyer, Seagate Technology and Seventh Generation. Another resource is Mind the Store’s report card of retailers’ chemicals management, published annually each fall.

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Clearly setting out your firm’s current practices in the chosen benchmarking criteria is an important part of Step 2 (evaluation), because it creates a baseline that lets you compare your performance against other firms’ chemicals management practices. The baseline then helps you develop an actionable plan in Step 3 to closer align with best practices and to progress on safer chemicals.

Common areas for improvement identified from this process are defining a clear policy and target specific to your company, such as reducing the use of chemicals of high concern beyond regulatory compliance or reducing the overall chemical footprint. Further, many companies lack a chemical inventory that provides a clear understanding of the chemicals used in products and packaging to know where there may be chemicals of concern, which involves effective supplier engagement. Defining a clear policy and identifying chemical inventory are fundamental steps to advance safer chemicals strategies.

Radio Flyer uses the CFP survey to benchmark its program. After completing the survey in 2015, the company identified developing a comprehensive chemical inventory as a key opportunity to better understand its chemical footprint. This also meant that the toy maker needed to gain greater transparency in its supply chain about chemicals and partner with suppliers to advance on target areas.

And after Step 3? Benchmarking is an iterative process that can help get you started, as well as improve existing efforts. Pure Strategies helped Walmart benchmark its program when the company was looking to enhance its existing sustainable chemistry program. Our team used the Chemical Footprint Project survey questions for the assessment, along with other leading practices. While Walmart’s program scored well, the process revealed important improvement areas. These included consideration for potential contaminants and addressing more product categories.

Benefits of benchmarking chemicals management

By aligning a company’s chemicals management policies and procedures with industry best practices, benchmarking helps lay the groundwork for programs to get out ahead of externally driven requirements. A systematic assessment of the chemicals management program offers additional benefits. It clarifies a company’s current policies and practices, charts a path to improved chemicals management, reduces risks and demonstrates leadership.

Eric Selner, VP of Operations & Sustainability at Radio Flyer, notes that “benchmarking with established tools such as the Chemical Footprint Project provided a blueprint for a strong chemicals management program to help us shape our efforts and meet our company’s aims. We have realized short-term gains and anticipate longer-term benefits.”


Cheryl Baldwin, Ph.D. is a Vice President of Consulting for Pure Strategies where she partners with corporate clients to develop and execute strategies to improve sustainability performance across food, home and personal care, and cosmetics industries.  Cheryl also… [Read more about Cheryl Baldwin]


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