Eleven (11) of the 43 resolutions investors have filed on toxic chemicals and product safety during the last three proxy seasons have focused wholly or partly on polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in packaging, toys, and other products. Investors have been in contact with an additional 22 companies regarding their use of PVC. Prompted by potential consumer marketplace impacts of major campaigns by environmental health advocacy organizations in the US and overseas, investor inquiries to companies and shareholder resolutions have surfaced important information about corporate policies and have encouraged companies to move along the PVC reduction and phase-out path. These engagements signal that a PVC packaging tipping point has passed in the marketplace, as other materials are increasingly being sought by both retailers and their suppliers and as use of alternatives grows.
PVC is a problem substance throughout its lifecycle. It’s manufactured from carcinogenic vinyl chloride monomer, posing an occupational hazard. Depending on how it’s being used, it can contain lead and other chemicals that pose a hazard, particularly to children. PVC is not readily recyclable as are other plastics. PVC can be a reputational or litigation hazard for major firms: Wal-Mart and other companies have had to pull lead-tainted bibs and children’s lunchboxes from their shelves.
Sears published a PVC phase out policy in November 2007 following a year of consultations with both investors and environmental activists. These conversations followed withdrawal of a November 2006 shareholder resolution requesting a sustainability report from the company. When filing the resolution, the shareholders had raised PVC as a particular concern.
At Bed Bath and Beyond, shoppers can now find prominent displays of “chlorine free” shower curtains. Bed Bath and Beyond managers discussed this and other initiatives with investors, in the aftermath of a 22% yes vote on a shareholder resolution raising questions about the company’s policies regarding PVC and other chemicals.
Wal-Mart and other companies have made very public commitments to phasing out PVC packaging, and are making progress in doing so, but other companies have been reducing reliance on PVC more quietly. For example, during the course of withdrawing a resolution at Costco on safer chemicals policies, investors were informed that the company had been working to reduce use of PVC, but had not said much publicly about it.
Additional companies have shared information with investors about their PVC progress and goals in response to inquiries, even in the absence of formal resolutions. For example, in the past year, Schering Plough, Logitech, Motorola and Nokia have provided such details. Schering-Plough signaled that its move from PVC for some of its consumer products was influenced by Wal-Mart’s interest in PVC reduction.
Companies clearly are responding to growing consumer interest in going PVC-free. A February 12, 2008 Wall Street Journal story on PVC toys noted that PVC-free plastic toys are attracting venture capitalist interest, and that Mattel and Hasbro are testing a corn-based plastic for their toys. Markets are moving away from PVC both for packaging and specific product lines, providing opportunities for both fast-moving companies and their investors.