Poly-vinyl chloride, commonly referred to as PVC, is a synthetic resin commonly used in plastic products. PVC is hazardous throughout its lifecycle, from production, through usage, and as a waste product. PVC is found in common consumer products such as toys, athletic shoes, packaging, computer parts, credit cards, garden hoses, shower curtains, upholstery, carpets, and plastic cables.
PVC production results in the creation of several highly toxic chemicals including dioxin, ethylene dichloride, and vinyl chloride. These can cause severe health problems, including: cancer, endocrine disruption, endometriosis, neurological damage, birth defects, impaired child development, and reproductive and immune system damage. Production plants and incinerators are often located in low-income communities. Testing of residents in local communities as well as that of PVC factory workers shows higher levels of dioxin and other hazardous chemicals.
While in use, PVC products are a major source of volatile organic compounds (VOC). PVC products leach phthalates and other chemicals into the air that are, in turn, ingested by consumers and linked to diseases such as asthma and increases in developmental problems among children. At the end of the product life, incineration of PVC creates dioxin and other toxic byproducts.
As You Sow engaged several nation-wide retailers that sell PVC products to educate them on the dangers of PVC and to encourage them to cease selling PVC products. These companies are now making progress on reducing or removing PVC from their own brand name product lines (prioritizing baby and children’s products) and packaging, and agreed to identify other products and packaging where PVC will be reduced or eliminated.
Bed Bath & Beyond
Numerous products sold in Bed Bath & Beyond, as well as in the company’s Harmon beauty products division, contain materials known to cause or have been associated with cancer, developmental harm to children, and other health and environmental impacts. These chemicals include: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA – sometimes referred to as “the Teflon chemical”), phthalates, and bisphenol A (BPA).
As You Sow filed a ‘Toxic Chemicals in Products’ shareholder resolution with the company in 2007, calling for a report on company products that use PVC, PFOA, phthalates, formaldehyde, and other toxic ingredients. The resolution received a 22% vote which is considered a high vote for a first year social/environmental resolution.
In 2008, As You Sow’s shareholder group – including outside experts on alternative products – spoke with company senior managers directly responsible for product purchasing and product safety assessment. As a result, Bed Bath & Beyond:
- Agreed to eliminate PVC from selected private label products such as shower curtains and
- Stated that it is moving forward with a number of other green products such as non-stick / non-toxic cooking ware.
Best Buy is the biggest consumer electronics chain in the US, consequently it faces the challenges of dealing not only with the use of PVC in its packaging but also with the growing problems of toxic electronic waste.
In 2008 As You Sow and fellow shareholders developed a dialogue with senior managers at Best Buy calling for a report on corporate policies to address toxic chemicals in its products. As a result of our engagement, Best Buy altered several of its practices and As You Sow withdrew its shareholder resolution.
Best Buy agreed to:
- Provide information in its Corporate Social Responsibility Report on its policies regarding product toxicity
- Create goals and time tables for phasing out of PVC packaging for Best Buy brands beginning in 2008
- Identify other products and packaging where PVC will be reduced or eliminated, and
- Label packaging for its private label brands.
Hasbro sells many toys made out of or packaged with PVC plastic. Shareholders are concerned about the exposure of consumers, factory workers (see Occupational Safety), and surrounding communities where PVC toys are being produced. In the US, cities such as San Francisco are already calling for the prohibition of the sale, distribution and manufacture of baby products containing certain levels of phthalates (plasticizers used in PVC products that mimic the body’s hormones causing cancers and birth defects).
In 2007 shareholders filed a Sustainability resolution asking Hasbro about its use of PVC in children’s toys. This resolution received 44% of the vote – an extraordinarily high vote for a first-year social resolution. In 2008, shareholders withdrew their planned resolution in exchange for a dialogue with the company which has included face-to-face meetings and conference calls with senior management.
In 2008 our dialogue with Hasbro has focused on the safety testing and removal of phthalates, lead, and other toxins found in children’s toys. Company senior management described its product safety procedures which include detailed safe chemical lists and policies, factory certification that only Hasbro-approved chemicals are used, and independent random testing of products to confirm that they meet these standards. Hasbro says it takes a precautionary approach to safety standards for the design and manufacture of its products which may account for the fact that it avoided major toy recalls in 2007.
America’s second largest retailer after Walmart – sells a large number of products containing PVC such as shower curtains and children’s toys. Yet in 2006, Target lagged behind Walmart not just in sales, but also in advancing safer chemical policies. Walmart and many other major companies including Nike, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson have already committed to begin phasing out PVC from selected products and packaging.
In 2006, As You Sow pulled together 22 different investor groups and led a dialogue among shareholders, company senior management, and NGO experts. Shareholders raised health concerns regarding PVC and asked for disclosure of PVC in Target products and packaging and for the company to develop plans to phase out PVC use. In response, Target conducted an inventory of its products and found PVC to be prevalent. The PVC issue was repeatedly raised by shareholders at Target’s 2007 annual meeting leading Target president Gregg Steinhafel to state “that the company will take a back seat to no one as it relates to being a socially responsible company.”
In the fall of 2007, after one year of pressure from the our shareholder coalition combined with consumer activist pressure, Target agreed to take significant steps to eliminate PVC in its Target-brand name products. This included:
- Using bio-based plastics instead of PVC for gift cards
- Phasing out PVC from infant products and children’s toys, lunchboxes and eating utensils, shower
- curtains, table placemats, coolers, and fashion accessories,
- Replacing PVC clamshell packaging in the media storage line with a modified paperboard/clamshell option, and
- Reducing its use of PVC in packaging materials for dinnerware, sporting goods, and travel accessories.
Target also asked its vendors to reduce the amount of PVC product packaging and to use easily recyclable materials.