A Billion Dollars Toward a Healthier Environment

How big companies are driving the market for safer furniture

CEH uses several strategies to end the use of harmful chemicals, and our work to end the use of toxic and dangerous flame retardant chemicals is a case in point. We have successfully used legal action to end the use of flame retardants in furniture and children’s products, and we co-sponsored successful state legislation to require labeling so consumers can know whether furniture has been made with or without these toxic chemicals.

But one of the most powerful ways to push for change is to leverage the power of the marketplace. When major companies make commitments to stop buying products made with toxic chemicals, they send a signal that reverberates through the supply chain, ultimately hitting chemical companies where they hurt the most: in their profit margins.

That’s why our ongoing work in recruiting major companies to pledge to preferentially purchase furniture made without flame retardants is so important. When companies that buy millions of dollars worth of furniture every year say to their suppliers that they want products made without toxic flame retardant chemicals, the market will act quickly to meet their demand. Ultimately that creates a mass market for safer products made without flame retardants for everyone, while undermining the chemical companies’ market for these toxic products.

To date, companies that buy more than $600 million worth of furniture annually have signed the CEH Purchaser’s Pledge, and in 2016 we aim to recruit more companies for a total of more than $1 billion of furniture purchasing among the pledge signers. Most recently, Harvard became the first university in the nation to join companies like Facebook, AutoDesk, HDR Architecture (North America’s 2nd largest design firm), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, City of Portland and others that have signed the pledge. In recognition of the toxic effects of flame retardants on health care workers and patients, several leading health care companies have also signed on, including New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente (one of the nation’s largest nonprofit healthcare systems, with 9.5 million members), and Dignity Health.

As Harvard Professor Joe Allen and Director of the Harvard Office for Sustainability Heather Henriksen noted in announcing their decision to sign the pledge,

The science is clear: halogenated and organophosphorous flame retardants have been widely used in upholstered furniture and other products for several decades; these chemical flame retardants migrate out of products and enter the air and dust in our indoor and outdoor environments, causing near ubiquitous exposure; and exposure to these chemicals is associated with adverse health effects including cancer, interference with the hormone system, impairments to neurological development, and reproductive harm….We are choosing to minimize the potential adverse impact of exposure to these chemicals, especially for vulnerable populations like pregnant women, children and young people, by eliminating or controlling the sources of exposure.

CEH has previously used the power of the marketplace with great success. Our work created guidelines that major companies use today for information technology purchasing and e-waste management, leveraging more than $1 billion worth of purchasing power from just two healthcare companies for safer production, use and disposal of electronics. The movement towards safer furniture made without flame retardants can be just as powerful. To learn more and find out how your company can take the pledge, contact Judy Levin at CEH at judy@ceh.org .