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Chemical footprint: the next level in sustainability

Since 2012, when the concept of ecological footprints was born, we have been accustomed to hearing about our carbon emissions. However, the footprint family incorporates more than that, with the chemical footprint also being a part of it. What is that, and why should we care?

The chemical footprint is an indicator of how much “chemicals of high concern” (COHC) a company is using during production or is selling as a retailer. There are over 10,000 different chemicals used every day in the world, and by now, the connection between some of these and environmental or health damage is apparent.

So benchmarking and measurements, such as the Chemical Footprint Project, gives an overview of the efforts businesses make to commit to a more sustainable way of chemical use. The project evaluates companies in four areas: management strategy, chemical inventory, footprint measurement (as reduction goals), and public disclosure and verification.

Producers of chemicals are obvious targets for such expectations. On the other hand, businesses in different industries are also responsible for unwanted emissions. Manufacturers of clothing, including the likes of Adidas, C&A, Levi’s, or Puma, have already joined the voluntary initiative, the ZDHC Roadmap to Zero Programme, and committed to the zero discharge of dangerous substances. Production of building materials and furniture, cleaning supplies, medical devices, hardware, or toys are also called out. They should take part in monitoring their supply chains and help to minimise damage from chemicals — and do it all transparently.

Going downstream, non-industrial players such as smaller retailers and service providers can also put their two cents in. A hairdressing salon that sources products with only safe chemicals. A food delivery service that uses paper products instead of plastic. A school that cleans with green supplies. It is a new field to explore and being proactive in finding sustainable ways of doing business is crucial.

There are also measures you can take in your own household to reduce chemical damage. Using less of everything is the first step and one where a little goes a long way. From washing to cleaning and grooming, make educated choices about the products you use. There are guidelines to follow when reading product labels and looking for possibly harmful ingredients. You can also try and make products at home that contain only additives you trust. Cleaning promises especially good returns on your efforts if you make use of lemon, vinegar, and washing soda.

Individual efforts add up to a healthier environment, but country policies increasingly back this up. For example, chemical regulatory landscapes have been changing in national economies and even on a broader scale. In Europe, the emission of potentially hazardous chemicals amounts to 200 million tonnes a year with associated health damage, and 120 million tonnes that is possibly harming the environment. So, the EU is working on new measures to calculate the chemical footprint of products and businesses in its Member States. It uses data from REACH and EFSA, and communicates the findings to help consumers navigate the risks. Chemical management at all levels of the society is moving up the agenda and is triggering a set of measures that will, hopefully, make life healthier for generations to come.

Written by Anikó Jóri-Molnár

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