Walmart Takes Lead on Controversial Flame Retardant

Mar 08, 2011

Walmart is not waiting for the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) to take action. The world’s largest retailer announced it is banning
all products containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a compound
used as a flame retardant that has been linked to a variety of health problems
in lab animals, including brain development and reproduction.

A company spokesperson
told The Washington Post that Walmart had decided
to phase out products with PBDEs "several years ago," but had recently
reminded suppliers it would begin testing for the chemicals in June.

"Wal-Mart has taken an important step toward protecting children and
families from exposure to toxic chemicals," Steve Owens, assistant administrator
of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told the Post. "EPA
has long had concerns about PBDEs."

The federal agency has labeled PBDEs
as "chemicals of concern," but
may be years away from taking action as the bureaucratic process for review
plays out.

Some within the chemical industry are taking issue with Walmart’s

Jody Manley, a spokesperson for the American Council on Science and
Health, told The
New York Times
, "They’ve been at this for a while, trying
to keep up with the green movement. Sam Walton is probably turning over in
his grave."

  • Wal-Mart bypasses federal regulators to ban controversial flame retardant
    The Washington Post
  • Leapfrogging Feds, Wal-Mart Bans Controversial Flame Retardant – The New
    York Times

    Discussion Questions: What are the ramifications of Walmart’s ban on PBDEs? Do you have any concerns around Walmart and other retailers taking actions that normally fall under the umbrella of federal and/or state agencies?

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    6 Comments on "Walmart Takes Lead on Controversial Flame Retardant"

    Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
    Bill Emerson
    Bill Emerson
    11 years 2 months ago

    This is a very smart move by the management at Walmart for a couple of reasons. Flame retardants are primarily used in children’s apparel and sleepwear, which is a huge business for WM. If, in fact, this chemical does turn out to be dangerous, WM would be a major target of class-action suits, which is something they obviously don’t need. On a more positive note, this move communicates a deep concern for the well-being of their customers’ kids, for which they should take credit.

    That lobbyists for the chemists are upset indicates how important the WM business is for them.

    Ed Rosenbaum
    11 years 2 months ago

    Walmart once again takes the lead on a subject of concern, especially to parents of young children. This will be viewed as a bright star on Walmart’s chest by those shoppers and others when deciding where and what to purchase. Others should follow the lead Walmart has set even if it means having to bite the bullet because Walmart took the first necessary step.

    Roger Saunders
    11 years 2 months ago
    PBDEs are used in a wide variety of commercial applications–automobiles, airplanes, furniture, etc., as well as children’s clothing. What the retail/clothing industry does want is a flame retardant set of material to provide to consumers–particularly children’s clothing. We still going ask the chemical industry to create a solution for this need. And, the government is going to ask retailers to sell products that are flame retardant. Walmart is not likely to gain a marketing edge in saying “these garments have no PBDEs,” as other than the 1/10th of 1% of the population involved in chemical roles would likely know what this item is. Walmart is a big enough mover of ‘children’s clothing’ that they will prompt the manufacturers to quickly move to PBDE alternatives. That might lead to an increase in cost of ‘children’s clothing’ in the short term, as materials will need to be shifted, as other retailers/manufacturers follow Walmart’s actions. Hopefully, no youngsters suffer some of the severe burns we all read about 20+ years ago before the use of PBDEs were put… Read more »
    Carol Spieckerman
    Carol Spieckerman
    11 years 2 months ago

    As pointed out in the questions, this speaks to a larger retail trajectory: retailers stepping in and crafting their own regulatory worlds. Over the past few years, retailer-driven consortiums and coalitions have sprouted up right and left (most recently, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition which boasts members from Adidas, Patagonia, Walmart, Target, Nike, and many others)–yet another way that retailers are attempting to control their own destinies.

    M. Jericho Banks PhD
    M. Jericho Banks PhD
    11 years 2 months ago

    In these spaces I have for years advocated Walmart’s establishing a retailer testing center for harmful substances in all types of products. My previous screeds usually involved lead in children’s products, but searching for PBDEs is a doozy. Way to go, Walmart. I have also suggested that Walmart test manufacturer claims of All Natural and Organic. See, I’m never satisfied. Always wanting more. What a pain in the butt.

    The government steps in when industries fail to police themselves. Manufacturers generally resent government intrusion, in this and many other areas (e.g., tax code), and yet they seldom present viable alternatives to governmental regulations. Walmart’s announcement is a step in the right direction, but just a step.

    Craig Sundstrom
    11 years 2 months ago

    One wonders at WM’s true motivation here: is it truly “concerned”? is it hoping to dodge liability issues down the line? Is it hoping to project a positive image? Only the fly-on-the-wall in Bentonville knows for sure. Anyway, enough about what’s done and on to what’s next..the unintended consequences:
    1) pressure to ban PBDE’s will increase greatly, whether the cause is legitimate or not (can anything ever really be proven safe??)
    2) WM will be sued for not having removed the products earlier;
    3) Alternative methods will be introduced which will provoke further controversies (everyone remember Tris??)


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