Irene Quarshie, VP of sustainable sourcing, talks about how the giant retailer plans to engage its vast supply chain in a move to reformulate 90,000 products

When one of America’s biggest retail stores announces plans to reduce carcinogenic chemicals from its all its products in 1,800 stores, it is a big deal, with huge impact that ripples down its vast supply chain.

In an interview with Ethical Corporation, Irene Quarshie, the company’s VP of responsible sourcing, said that the sheer number and diversity of Target’s products, ranging from electronics to homeware to foodstuffs, is the biggest challenge.  

“We don’t have the luxury, as some brands do, of focusing on one thing, for example healthcare. We do a broad range of products, from accessories to baby products. We’re the second-largest importer of goods into the US. But this doesn’t mean we are deterred; we focus on the end game. We ensure if progress is small it is also significant.”

Target’s move follows Walmart’s announcement last July that it had asked its suppliers to find replacements for eight chemicals, including formaldehyde and triclosan, in its products, a move that affects 90,000 products.  Last year Walmart and Target came first and second, respectively, when Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a Washington-based coalition, ranked the 11 biggest merchants on their chemical-disclosure policies.

Quarshie says Target’s sweeping new goals for its products focus on areas with the “biggest impact on human health”, particularly chemicals that have been labelled as carcinogenic. Target has committed to be transparent about chemicals used throughout its supply chain, and innovate safer alternatives for products. It aims to achieve this by 2020, and invest in green chemistry by 2022.

Quarshie says Target’s holistic approach of evaluating all product categories and operations – from cleansers to clothes – differs from Walmart’s policy, which focuses solely on formulated products such as bath, beauty and personal care items. “Our chemical policy evaluates process chemicals, or chemicals used in the process of making the product, not just those that are found in the product.”

Credit: ValeStock/Shutterstock Inc.


However, the discount retail store is honing in particularly on the baby and personal healthcare market. Asked if this was a reaction to an increased consumer awareness of chemicals that have been labelled as harmful, such as parabens and formaldehyde, Quarshie said: “Consumer awareness has increased. Women in particular are becoming more aware of what they put on and around their bodies. They care about what’s in their products.”

Target produced a list of identified unwanted chemicals in products and worked with its chemical manufacturers to see what they could be replaced with. “Not all unwanted chemicals have an easy solution,” she said, citing flame retardants as a particular area of difficulty. “We had to work out what is actually possible. For flame retardants, there is just no viable solution today.”

Quarshie describes it as “a journey” that they have just begun. There is a lot of testing involved, working with suppliers on the solutions. “But we are committed to the vision. We’re clear on our intentions.” These intentions are to remove all hazardous chemicals where possible, making sure the alternatives are not harmful to consumers’ health.

Quarshie said Target has had a largely positive response from suppliers. “Larger suppliers in particular are very enthused,” she said, “we’re figuring it out together.” Collaboration with suppliers is integral to Target’s vision, with communication being at the forefront of its new policies. “Comms were critical,” Quarshie said, “We continue to field questions and the vendors lead by providing feedback.” Target ensured vendors were notified before the launch of the new goals, and have been kept informed every step of the way. “It’s still early days but we’re hoping to drive change. Our vendors are a key part of that.”

Holding suppliers accountable is also part of this strategy. Quarshie is keen to emphasise that Target is committed to actively engage with suppliers and “lean into innovation” as a solution to the problems they face. As part of its work with suppliers to identify new chemicals for products, it is investing $5m in green chemistry by 2022.

As well as using its CSR report as a way to track traceability and transparency, Target will leverage its sustainable product index, a way to assess products and rate them on different dimension of sustainability: ingredients, transparency, packaging and stewardship. The index is three years old and is used to “establish a common language”, helping to qualify what makes products sustainable. Its intention is to build a holistic framework, and chemical policy is part of a broad strategy.

Irene Quarshie

Asked where she sees the onus lying in sustainable business: on consumer awareness or retailers Quarshie said: “It’s not an ‘either/or’ proposition,” she said, “Everybody has the ability to make an impact. We want to focus on the impact on our communities, where everyone has a role to play. We have to educate consumers while designing the right products for everyone.”

 With such an extensive range of products in its stores, breadth seems to be a necessary part of its CSR strategy. “Our supply chains impact millions of people so we have to make a positive impact,” Quarshie said. “We have to be prudent in identifying global trends and ensure we have the resources to help our workers and understand any environmental impacts.”

Transparency is a key aspect of Target’s responsible sourcing strategy, she said. This applies to the social side of its supply chains, focusing on workers’ safety, remediation plans, and forced labour risks; the environmental side, understanding its footprint and mapping its supply chain; and ensuring its raw materials are ethically and sustainably sourced.

Quarshie also said it was important to focus on adapting to changing global trends rather than sticking to a rigid framework. “We’re committed to learning. This is just the beginning of our journey.”


Irene Quarshie, VP responsible sourcing at Target, will be giving more insight on how Target will build more transparency and traceability into its supply chain at our Responsible Business Summit New Yorkthis week. The event will host 250+ leading US brands sharing how to create a business of purpose and profit. Other brands leading the debate include; Dell, Ford Motors Foundation, Interface, PepsiCo, Infosys, Ecolab, VF Corporation, Zendesk, HSBC Bank USA plus many more.

Target  harmful chemicals  green chemistry  parabens  sustainability 

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