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05
Apr

Companies Face Shareholder Resolutions on Chemical Risks in Products

(Beyond Pesticides, April 5, 2007) In the wake of costly litigation, product sales bans, and reputation damage arising from asbestos, pesticides and other toxic materials in cosmetics and toys, and Teflon-related chemicals, U.S. investors are becoming increasingly wary of toxic chemical risks in products, in supply chains, and in their own portfolios. The number of shareholder resolutions dealing with toxic product risks jumped from three in 2004-2005 to 17 in 2006-2007, including 13 resolutions introduced for the 2007 proxy season at such leading U.S. corporations as Dow and DuPont, according to a press release.

In response, the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN), which represents 20 investment organizations with $22 billion in assets under management, yesterday released the 52-page “Fiduciary Guide to Toxic Chemical Risk.” The guide for institutional investors examines the financial dimensions of toxic chemical risk, including how to quantify such risk, the theory behind the danger posed by toxic chemicals to the wealth of shareholders, and a comprehensive set of action steps that can be taken by investors to translate the long-term threats and opportunities associated with toxic chemical issues into prudent portfolio stewardship.

The IEHN primer for institutional investors concludes: “Researchers are increasingly detecting scores of these substances in human blood, breast milk, and amniotic fluid, and scientists are increasingly recognizing the particular vulnerability of fetuses and young children to them. These and related findings are contributing to rising awareness that the strategic choices businesses make about managing toxic chemicals in their products can have major financial consequences. As DuPont has been discovering with PFOA, a chemical used to produce Teflon and stain and grease repellants, consumers and industrial customers may abandon product lines over toxicity concerns. At the same time, liability litigation and government enforcement actions may further undermine bottom lines and reputations.”

Report co-author and Rose Foundation Executive Director Tim Little said: “Companies’ strategic choices have serious implications for government pension funds. Our report estimates the combined annual costs of environmentally related childhood asthma, cancers and neurobehavioral disorders in California, Connecticut and New York States as on the order of $15 billion dollars. Government employee pension funds, in particular, should take heed and take action on the funds, state treasuries and fund members are shouldering the resulting health care and special education costs.”

Richard Liroff, Ph.D., executive director of IEHN, said: “Poor corporate management of toxic hazards can increase risks for investors. Regulatory controls are tightening around the globe, not only in Europe but also in US states such as California, and in developing markets such as Korea and China. The failure to address safer materials is causing products to be locked out of markets. By contrast, corporate efforts to minimize or avoid exposures, or to offer safer alternatives, can benefit corporate bottom lines and reward investors.”

Craig Metrick, US lead for responsible investment at Mercer Investment Consulting, said: “The good news for investors is that there are constructive steps they can take immediately to mitigate the potential risk posed by toxic chemicals in their portfolio. These steps we are outlining include comprehensive directions that can help fiduciaries understand the relationship between toxics and financial risk, and guide their exploration of these issues with investment managers and consultants.” The 2006 proxy season saw a flurry of positive corporate steps following the filing of shareholder resolutions focusing on toxic chemical risks, including:

  • Whole Foods Markets announced that it would remove baby bottles and other products that contain certain toxics from its shelves as part of a new corporate policy initiative to reduce customers’ exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals.
  • Wal-Mart announced a new “preferred substances policy” that incorporates a precautionary, hazards-based approach to chemicals management, initially focusing on persistent bioaccumulative toxics and carcinogens.
  • Johnson & Johnson agreed to initiate a stakeholder dialogue with one of the cosmetics industry’s harshest critics, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Experts expect the concerns about toxic chemical risks to continue apace in the 2007 proxy season, with many key votes scheduled over the next few weeks:
  • Dow (asthma). Refiling of 2006 resolution that requests report analyzing impact of Dow products on asthma and measures Dow is taking to phase out or restrict such chemicals. Lead Filer: Trillium Asset Management. Estimated voting date: May 10.
  • DuPont (chemical security). Shareholders are requesting the independent directors of DuPont to report on the implications of a policy for reducing harm from catastrophic chemical releases by reducing the use and storage of extremely hazardous substances and taking other steps. Lead Filer: Green Century Capital Management. Estimated voting date: April 25.
  • Scotts Miracle-Gro. Shareholders requested a report on the company’s expenditures during 1993-2005 on efforts to oppose local policies to limit lawn care product use. Lead filer: Boston Common Asset Management. Outcome: 9.3 percent of vote. In its opposition statement to the resolution, the company reported it had spent less than $300,000 in fiscal year 2006 to oppose local pesticide ordinances.
  • ServiceMaster. Shareholders request a report on the feasibility of discontinuing the use of synthetic pesticides at TruGreen Chemlawn, instead substituting natural and non-toxic lawncare services. Lead filer: Green Century Capital Management. Outcome: Estimated voting date May 8. Note that ServiceMaster has announced its pending acquisition by a private equity consortium led by Clayton, Dubilier, and Rice, Inc.
  • The full IEHN report is available online at www.iehn.org.

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