Walmart does the right thing

What the government can’t do, private business does … sometimes.

Mike Munzenrider

Walmart haters take heed, you may have to soften your distaste for the company. A month after the release of a study possibly linking a commonly used flame retardant to fertility issues in women, the much and rightly maligned corporate behemoth announced it would voluntarily ban the chemical in products it sells.
WalmartâÄôs display of good corporate citizenship reveals a way in which consumers, interest groups and activists can enact change for the better without the governmentâÄôs help.
The Washington Post reported Feb. 26 that Walmart would ban the chemical compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, from products the retailer sells. PBDEs are flame retardants used in many products, like couches, carpeting and cameras.
The announcement came following the Jan. 27 release of a study conducted by the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley, which found that women exposed to PBDEs had a more difficult time becoming pregnant.
In business terms, this is a smart move by Walmart, which has had more than its fair share of troubles with its public image.
This isnâÄôt the first time Walmart has acted in a way that should make those weary of the corporation crack a smile. Following Whole FoodsâÄô lead, Walmart banned products that contain bisphenol A, or BPA, in 2008.
The chemical is commonly found in baby bottles and childrenâÄôs cups and has been linked to reproductive problems and cancer in lab animals.
Other companies have similarly banned suspect chemicals from their products. ToysâÄúRâÄùUs no longer allows BPA, while Sears and Kmart phased out the use of polyvinyl chloride, PVC, from their products.
What makes these moves even more laudable âÄî especially WalmartâÄôs leading action to ban PBDEs âÄî is that none of these chemicalsâÄô uses are prohibited by the federal government.
Because of the 35-year-old laws that determine how the government regulates chemicals, the federal government must prove that a chemical in question poses a serious health risk.
ItâÄôs so difficult to prove the health risks associated with industrial chemicals that even asbestos, widely regarded as a carcinogen, is not banned.
Amazingly, the Environmental Protection Agency only has enough data on 200 of the 84,000 chemicals used in products in the U.S. today to institute bans.
Such moves by Walmart bypass the accumulated governmental red tape and can force manufacturers to discontinue the use of chemicals that are most likely harmful in a fraction of the time it would take for the government to accomplish the same thing. WalmartâÄôs gigantic market share should ensure a de facto ban on PBDEs even if the government cannot.
âÄúThis really shows the market being able to move more decisively than the government,âÄù said Andy Igrejas, national campaign director of Safer Chemicals, Healthier Families, to The Washington Post.
Beyond simply being a responsibly good PR move, WalmartâÄôs actions should point out to activists another way to enact change âÄî without government involvement.
Money is important to both politicians and corporations, but corporate types can be much more transparently motivated by cash without adverse effect.
While Walmart shouldnâÄôt be asked to solve problems like labor disputes and such, it can and does take measures to make consumers safer.
Corporate entities arenâÄôt perfect for promoting public well-being, but theyâÄôre much more reactive to public needs when their bottom line is at stake.
We, as consumers, must press corporations to do the things our government canâÄôt do expediently, because in the end in these situations our money does more than our vote.