We are pleased to welcome guest blogger and BLC Leather Technology Centre’s chemical and regulatory advisor, Georgina Mawer, to Consumer Products Law Blog. Georgina focus on product safety assessments, including guidance on chemical testing and analysis, as well as research and delivery of technical contract work. An experienced chemical analyst, her studies focused on forensic science.
BLC is the leading independent leather testing and technology center, working with manufacturers, retailers and tanners in over 40 countries, delivering a range of leather, footwear and accessories related services which include testing, training and consultancy.
Responsible chemical management is a fundamental requirement for any brand or retailer as part of a sustainable product offering. The demands are now for brands and retailers to demonstrate a holistic approach to chemical compliance; this is placing increasing pressure on upstream manufacturers to provide materials that are produced using responsible chemistry. This means an additional effort around chemical procurement, storage, handling, use and waste management.
Finished product RSLs are only part of the story
The current restricted substance regulations for finished products are extensive; however, a compliant finished product (against legal or brand imposed restricted chemical policies) gives little assurance over the impact of chemicals used during the product lifecycle which will include all upstream and downstream activities. In fact, many consumer products are compliant to finished product regulations in spite of their manufacturing processes being hazardous or polluting and their disposal creating additional downstream chemical burdens. It is for this reason that NGO’s such as Greenpeace have pressured brands into putting their supply chain under the spotlight and making public commitments around the elimination of certain chemicals from the supply chain.
Significant progress has been made within the leather community in a view to assessing the impact of hazardous chemistry above and beyond consumer facing risk; a major milestone was the release of the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Manufacturing Restricted Substance List (MRSL) in December 2015.
The function of a MRSL is to list chemicals subject to a usage ban; addressing substances that workers may be exposed to during the production life cycle as well as those that may be potentially used and discharged into the environment during manufacturing and related processes—not just those substances contained within finished material/product.
With a shift in emphasis upstream, brands and retailers will be looking for assurance from suppliers regarding the absence of MRSL listed chemicals. This may be through authorised lists of propriety chemicals (white list), declarations, testing of chemical formulations, training and/or auditing. This will demand a change in chemical procurement (where necessary) to approved chemicals. In reality, for the leather manufacturers working with responsible global chemical suppliers, there will be little change other than additional scrutiny and audits by the brands. Conversely, leather suppliers choosing to work with less responsible manufactures and suppliers of chemicals will come under increasing scrutiny and pressure to comply with the restrictions imposed by their brand customers.
With the advent of the MRSL we are beginning to see the emergence of a situation where industry has the opportunity to manage chemical inputs, impose responsible sourcing and better define what is—and what is not—both acceptable and achievable.
Chemical substitution is a focal point under the MRSL umbrella; with that in mind it is important to remember that it is not just the hazardous properties of said replacements that need to be taken into account, one must also consider that the ‘greener chemistry’ in practice needs to be of similar supply chain costs, must not be subject to additional regulatory pressures – such as those we see with technologies such as nano-particles – and should not lead to significant comprises in terms of product performance. Regrettably, the reality is that for some chemicals, substitutes could be many years away and for others sometimes there is nothing available.
Green chemistry, however, is a growing business with large investment assigned to research into the development of alternative, sustainable chemicals and technologies. Whilst many would argue that legislation and pressure driven initiatives are potentially forcing a compromise in product performance or an increase in costs, there is also significant argument that legislation and NGO pressure is indeed the best driver for innovation and advancements within the chemical industry and collaboration with the supply chain.
The Leather MRSL will become an industry standard tool and if managed well it will be a vital resource for the leather industry in effectively managing hazardous chemistry and setting the standards for a genuine reduction of the damaging impacts of chemicals used within leather production.
On May 12, 2016, Norton Rose Fulbright and BLC are holding a one-day Sustainability in the Leather Supply Chain Course in New York City. For more information about the event, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.