A blistering Wall Street Journal investigation should be a serious wake-up call for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the company’s senior leadership: it needs to focus on ensuring the safety of its products and protecting customers’ health.
Among the findings of choking hazards, illegally imported prescription drugs, and false claims of product safety certifications, the investigation revealed Amazon’s sale of products containing dangerous chemicals. For example:
- Amazon was until recently selling paint strippers containing the harmful chemicals methylene chloride and NMP. The company agreed to stop selling them effective March 2019, joining Walmart, Lowe’s, The Home Depot and other top retailers. But our research found Amazon was still selling them in March. And we found the company was selling them again in April, and yet again in late June, more than three months after the ban went into effect. While Amazon took down the products swiftly after we brought them to its attention, it clearly needs better systems in place to enforce its policies.
- Amazon was selling school supplies and children’s jewelry with lead and cadmium levels above Washington state’s lead standard until the state attorney general stepped in. The state investigation revealed consumers in Washington and across the country made at least 15,188 purchases of products with illegal levels of lead and cadmium from amazon.com. A settlement required Amazon to stop selling the products and make sure third-party sellers certify compliance.
- Four of the ten toys tested by the Wall Street Journal were above federal standards for lead, including a xylophone that had lead at levels four times the federal standard.
These chemicals are just the tip of the toxic iceberg. There are many other toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, reproductive harm, and other serious health problems undoubtedly hiding in products sold on Amazon.
We have been alerting Amazon to toxic product problems like this for nearly three years through our Mind the Store campaign. We sent our first letter to the company in the fall of 2016 when we evaluated the company in our annual Who’s Minding the Store? retailer report card, which benchmarks retailers on their chemicals policies.
In 2017, we conducted independent testing on televisions for dangerous flame retardants. We found two of three TVs purchased from Amazon contained the worst class of flame retardants—so concerning that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has warned companies not to use them and started a process to ban them. We brought this issue directly to Amazon, but the company has yet to take action.
Amazon’s chemicals policy – a step in the right direction
Last year, Amazon finally started making progress with restrictions on dozens of toxic chemicals in its private-label beauty, personal care, and household cleaning products. When Amazon announced a chemical policy last year and then pledged to stop the sale of deadly paint strippers with methylene chloride, we were hopeful. Then Whole Foods, purchased by Amazon, committed to phasing out the highly persistent PFAS chemicals from food packaging in products we sampled. These were real and credible signs of progress.
But despite these notable policy commitments and actions, the new Wall Street Journal investigation uncovered Amazon’s major systemic failure to police harmful products in its marketplace. Compared to other retailers, Amazon is moving far too slowly on safety. It has not yet meaningfully applied its famous innovation to the challenge of scaling up and expanding its chemical policy to protect consumers. The WSJ article reveals:
“At one point in 2013, some Amazon employees began scanning randomly selected third-party products in Amazon warehouses for lead content, say people familiar with the tests. Around 10% of the products tested failed, one says. The failed products were purged, but higher-level employees decided not to expand the testing, fearing it would be unmanageable if applied to the entire marketplace, the people familiar with the tests say.”
The Wall Street Journal investigation demonstrates that Amazon’s corporate policies and practices are woefully inadequate at protecting its customers from dangerous products. Monitoring so many products, even just for lead, is a huge task. But if Amazon doesn’t significantly improve its practices soon, it will continue to face reputational liabilities and ballooning costs for regulatory compliance failures. Even worse, Amazon risks losing the trust of its customers if the company fails to take responsibility for the products sold on its virtual store shelves.
Six recommendations for reform – an opportunity for Amazon
The examples in this most recent investigation are just the tip of the toxic iceberg. We recommend Amazon step up in the following ways:
- Expand existing chemical policy to cover additional chemicals and brand-name products sold on Amazon, including in its Marketplace. The current policy only covers a limited array of private-brand products. The company should expand the policy to cover the same chemicals in brand-name products sold on Amazon. Last year the company stated the policy “will be expanded to additional brands, product categories, and geographies over time” and this summer expanded it to the EU. We strongly recommend the company continue to expand it in the year ahead to more private-label and brand-name categories.
- Tackle electronics, apparel, and food—product categories where toxic chemicals are commonly found. Amazon is on track to be the biggest retailer of apparel and electronics in America and one of the largest online retailers of food. There are also rumors that the company may be significantly expanding its footprint with even more grocery stores. Chemicals of concern such as PFAS, toxic flame retardants, and phthalates are commonly found in these types of products. Amazon should expand its policy to address them in both private-label and brand-name products to get these harmful chemicals out of these products.
- Set clear timeframes, goals, and metrics. Other retailers, such as Target and Walmart, have announced clear timeframes for reducing and eliminating chemicals of concern over the past year. In contrast, Amazon’s chemical policy does not include any clear public metrics (besides its commitment on methylene chloride and NMP paint removal products). The company should set public quantifiable goals going forward to measure progress. After all, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.
- Make online ingredient transparency mandatory. Amazon should require online ingredient disclosure (including fragrance ingredients) for all products sold on Amazon.com, beginning with private-label and brand-name baby, household cleaning, personal care, and beauty products.
- Develop a comprehensive program to enforce and ensure supplier conformance with its chemicals policy. The company should:
- Delineate requirements associated with safer chemicals policy and reporting in contracts with suppliers;
- Train suppliers in safer chemicals policy and reporting requirements;
- Require suppliers to conduct testing in third-party laboratories and provide results to Amazon;
- Routinely conduct its own testing of parts, materials, or ingredients provided by suppliers;
- Develop detailed guidance for suppliers on evaluating the hazards of alternatives using tools such as the GreenScreen; and,
- Invest financial resources into independent research into safer alternatives and green chemistry solutions to chemicals of high concern.
- Publicly report on progress annually. Amazon should publicly report metrics on an annual basis, sharing both its progress and challenges, as it implements its chemicals policy. Thus far, the company has yet to publicly disclose any progress or metrics in implementing its chemicals policy or ban on toxic paint strippers.
We can appreciate that creating and policing a chemical management system can be an enormous challenge for a business like Amazon. However, given this recent investigation, it is imperative that Amazon takes even more aggressive action to ensure its customers are safe from dangerous chemicals. Amazon claims to be “customer-obsessed”— if it is, prime customers and other shoppers should be able to shop without worrying about toxics in their new purchases.
That’s a goal a truly customer-obsessed company should embrace.