The science of how different chemicals impact human health is evolving. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) calculation, a selection of chemicals, including lead, pesticides and occupational carcinogens, contributed to 2 million premature deaths and 54 million disability-adjusted life years in 2019, with lead alone responsible for nearly half of those deaths. Those figures were significantly higher than in 2016, when the premature deaths estimate was 1.6 million.
Companies are starting to confront the problem, which spans sectors ranging from fashion to consumer gadgets. Fashion retailer H&M and consumer goods giant Unilever have published 2030 roadmaps to strip out toxic and fossil fuel-based chemicals, respectively, from their supply chains, for instance. DSM, a Dutch multinational, has combed through its entire portfolio to pinpoint a range of ‘concerning substances’, including carcinogens and chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system.
International codes and charters are helping to galvanise governments and industry. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from this class of chemicals. Coalitions of companies between sectors are forming, like Roadmap to Zero, an alliance between chemical companies and retailers in the textiles and footwear sector, to reduce the industry’s chemical footprint. Meanwhile, the Responsible Care Charter is a chemicals industry code to promote safe management. The chemicals industry is the second-largest manufacturing sector and is growing fast; production doubled to 2.3 billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2017, and will double again by 2030. This combines with a shift in location towards China and the Middle East, and among state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which limits the impact of Western-centric industry regulations and, in the case of SOEs, the relevance of otherwise important tools like sustainability-related financial disclosures.
Investors and shareholders are making meaningful demands on public companies to clean up their environmental profile as a whole—and consumers are increasingly agitating for companies and governments to do more to deal with the ecological crisis. History shows that, with industry focus, technological innovation and public pressure, environmentally risky industries can radically improve their performance—witness, for instance, the reduction in oil spills in recent decades.