California Moves on Eco-impact Regulation

In one of the latest commitments to corporate “greenism,” Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., is leading the charge to label the products it sells with details about their environmental impact.

It is a move that is expected to compel Wal-Mart’s legions of suppliers to start measuring the toxicity of their goods. So many companies are trying to get a handle on their products’ eco-impact that a new cottage industry is emerging for so-called pollution calculators. Their job is to track a product’s carbon trail across its entire life cycle.

But the question arises: Whose standards will companies use as a measuring stick when making such life-cycle assessments? Environmental lawyer Peter Hsiao of Morrison & Foerster ( observes that while some companies have voluntarily attempted to assess the cradle-to-grave impact of products, the state of California, through its Green Chemistry Initiative, is proposing groundbreaking regulations to mandate this assessment. “Green chemistry” refers to the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances.

“Life cycle assessments have no current benchmarks for how to measure those impacts,” says Hsiao, who has been following the Green Chemistry movement. “California will create milestone standards that will have far-reaching effect on how those assessments are performed, what they are used for, and how those products may be regulated,” he predicts.

Two bills mandating the Green Chemistry Initiative were signed into law in September last year by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Assembly Bill 1879 empowers the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control to adopt regulations to identify and regulate chemicals of concern in consumer products. Currently the DTSC is drafting regulations based on public input solicited earlier this year and includes consideration of life-cycle criteria. Senate Bill 509 aims to make more chemical risk information available to the public by directing DTSC to create a Web-accessible Toxics Information Clearinghouse of chemicals used in products.

“Future industry standards for products’ life-cycle assessments are currently being formed right here in California,” says Hsiao, who is based in Los Angeles. “A new industry of experts, consultants and in-house legal and marketing staffs will be needed to quickly adapt to these new assessment criteria.”

Morrison & Foerster

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