Retailers as Regulators?

How it became acceptable to play marketing games with health and safety standards.

Is the family garden hose actually a snake waiting in the grasses to tempt us? A sudden flurry of interest is now dedicated to raising fears that the childhood experience of drinking from a garden hose may be unsafe. Health Canada is warning that it can present a health risk and suggests ways to mitigate this. Some retailers are cautiously commenting only by pointing to the highly controversial California-Proposition-65-label that appears on many garden hoses, all the while activist groups are already rallying their banners to take on the role of public-opinion regulator.

But in other sectors, particularly consumer products and cosmetics, it is specific retailers that are playing the role of regulator by blacklisting certain products based upon ingredients that retailers themselves think are unsafe, despite definitive evidence by Health Canada to the contrary. These retailers may appear to be acting in the best interest of consumers, but it comes down to playing marketing games with health and safety standards. The blacklist of ingredients that specific retailers have developed will not be shared with potential suppliers or the general public. Potential suppliers will be required to provide the supplier a comprehensive ingredient list (in addition to making ingredients available online) and wait to be notified if one of its ingredients is on the blacklist.

That these actions will inevitably hurt consumers’ personal choice is obvious. But the problems go much deeper. The even greater harm to individuals is it erodes our confidence in the very place that should have our highest trust, which is in the science-based decision-making of the federal regulators. With teams of world class scientists, doctors, and researchers, Health Canada – the primary regulator of consumer products – wields incredible resources that have made it a global leader in scientific-based decision-making. In partnership with Environment Canada under the federal government’s Chemicals Management Plan, a compound is submitted to a robust risk assessment before it is deemed to be safe to people and the environment.

When a retailer decides, on its own accord, that it thinks a product might be unsafe as a result of one of its ingredients, individuals begin distrusting their government’s world-leading regulatory body. We begin wondering why the product hasn’t already been banned, choosing to ignore (or worse, being told to ignore) substantial scientific evidence pointing to its safety. It may make us hesitant to believe future regulations, which may have lethal consequences.

Refusing life-saving vaccinations is just one example where some Canadians’ are putting their lives at risk as a result of failing to trust science-based reasoning and expert regulators. Prime Minister Stephen Harper drove this home at the recent maternal health summit, asking Canadians, “Don’t indulge your theories…listen to the experts.” Just one example of many…

On an abstract level, it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with the large retailers’ position. Facing pressure from activist groups, they want to target what they sell to their consumers in any manner they wish. However there are real consequences and practical concerns that must allow for reasonable boundaries on this.

The ginned-up controversy surrounding triclosan is one such example where real consequences stem from some retailers’ positions that are in direct opposition to the science-based decisions made by government regulators. On March 30, 2012, Health Canada and Environment Canada jointly released the results of the federal government’s extensive evidence-based risk assessment, concluding that only in very large quantities is triclosan potentially dangerous to the environment, and when it comes to personal safety, “triclosan is not harmful to human health;” moreover, “[i]t has been proven to provide health benefits in some products.”

When retailers announce that they are phasing out products containing ingredients such as triclosan, in the face of opposing scientific evidence, it can be characterized as nothing less than a marketing ploy that capitalizes on risk adverse consumers by eroding their trust in science-based decisions. However, it is short-sighted logic that leads retailers to make these decisions.

Prior to 1994, many chemicals used in commerce were not subject to government environmental or health risk assessments. When the Government of Canada introduced the Chemicals Management Plan, in addition to bringing tremendous benefits to the safety of individual Canadians, it gave the retailer an authoritative process to which it could point. For two decades, large retailers were able to confidently direct activist petitioners to the trusted regulator, pointing to the weight of scientific risk assessments that informed their decisions on what products were safe to stock their shelves. With these plans to act as pseudo-regulator, large retailers are opening a very dangerous door. Such arbitrary policies will perpetually be subject to pressure by the largest petition and the latest social media campaign, no matter how poorly informed or lacking in scientific rigour they are.

In a time of social media activism – where individuals no longer simply exercise their own free choices as consumers, but instead use platforms to actively encourage others to subscribe to their opinions – a trusted regulator is more important than ever. In a time where consumers face a barrage of self-proclaimed experts, evidence-based risk assessments are more important than ever.

When large retailers play marketing games with health and safety standards, it bankrupts a trusted system and turns it into a shouting match where scientific-based decision-making is bypassed. Willful ignorance remains the deadliest ingredient associated with any product.