What should we make of Target Corp.'s decision to reduce the amount of PVC in its packaging and products?
First, there's no way to spin this — it's bad news for vinyl. OK, so Target doesn't have a firm time line to remove all vinyl. But don't expect the company to sit on the issue for a few years and then announce that it was wrong, vinyl is fine after all, and no other material can beat it when it comes to price and performance.
That may be true, but Target would never get away with it.
Now that the retail chain has made the no-more-PVC pledge, you can be sure that the groups that pressured Target to make the promise will be watching closely for signs of progress. They will follow up, and they will apply additional coercion if they feel Target is moving too slowly.
Here's a hint at what's coming next: It's highly unlikely that anti-PVC forces will feel that Target is moving fast enough.
Also, though the news is hitting during an epidemic of headlines over Chinese-made toys that contain lead paint, don't be misled into thinking this is just a lead safety issue. The news may be resonating with the media and some consumers because of made-in-China concerns. But the groups that pushed for Target (and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.) to reduce PVC use aren't just focused on lead, or on China.
No, this is another victory for the precautionary principle — simply said, it's the idea that in case of scientific uncertainty, society should err on the side of caution. Sure, everyone takes risks every day, when we eat fatty foods, don't get enough exercise, ride motorcycles, cross the street. But the chemical industry increasingly is under scrutiny from activists who feel that the benefits of some chemical products are not worth the risks associated with them. Never mind if the risks have not been proved scientifically — the mind-set is to ban now and ask questions later.
Right now, PVC is one of the chemicals where the critics are getting traction. And their leverage to enforce a ban is in children's products. It's not a huge leap from saying, “Some PVC toys and baby products contain lead or phthalates, so let's ban lead and phthalates,” to, “Let's ban PVC in toys and baby products.”
Target now has taken the natural next step, which is to say that babies might get ahold of just about anything they sell, so why not apply the same rule across the board?
Is it logical? Not really. But it absolutely is a trend to watch.
The primary market for PVC — construction products like vinyl siding and pipe — isn't in jeopardy. The world needs PVC products to build — and rebuild — utility infrastructure, as well as residential housing. The people who make the decisions about construction materials — builders and the majority of home-building consumers — are still solidly in the PVC camp.
But if you're making a PVC product that you need to sell in a Target or Wal-Mart store in order for your business to survive, you'd better not wait too long to start looking at alternatives.