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Clas Ohlson: Challenging to phase out flame retardants in electronics

Clas Ohlson has a long tradition of thinking about sustainability and is aiming to be completely carbon neutral by 2045. Johanna Håkansson is a Product Compliance and Sustainability Specialist at the company, with a particular focus on the substitution of hazardous chemicals. One challenge is the balancing act between the substitution of hazardous chemicals and ensuring that the product lasts over time. These are two environmental aspects in electronics that must be weighed against each other.

Clas Ohlson was founded in Insjön, Dalarna in 1918 as a mail order company for DIY carpentry instruction manuals. Today, the company sells completely different products but still maintains a focus on reparability: that all products should be repairable if they break.

–  We have incredibly high technical knowledge internally, since for many of our employees it is somewhat of a lifestyle, which means that we can select and develop products with a focus on reparability, says Johanna Håkansson, Product Compliance and Sustainability Specialist at Clas Ohlson.

– Unfortunately, reparability has fallen by the wayside over the last 50 years, but we are seeing that this trend is reversing. And with increasing demand, we hope that there will be a focus on reparability in our sustainability work moving forward.

Longer battery life increases the need for flame retardants

Developing sustainable products – with the intention that they will be used for many years – has a downside, however. Many electronic products use flame retardants containing bromine, chlorine or phosphorus, which are persistent as well as harmful. At the same time, they are necessary in order for the product to meet safety requirements. As the capacity of batteries increases and products become more compact, effective flame retardants become necessary, and these often contain hazardous chemicals.

– If the battery’s capacity were lower and the product had more space between the components, flame retardant would be unnecessary, explains Johanna Håkansson.

– However, the trend is pointing towards increasingly compact electronics products, which we consume without recognising their environmental consequences. Of course, responsibility should not rest solely with the consumer; we producers must also take responsibility for safely and quickly phasing out hazardous flame retardants.

Safe flame retardants hard to find

Replacing a flame retardant with one that does not contain hazardous chemicals is not a straightforward matter.

– Because the products are expected to last a long time, the flame retardant used needs to be documented as equally effective when the product is new and when it’s at the end of its life. This makes it difficult for us to replace the flame retardant. We follow developments in research and in the industry, but we cannot lead the way with unproven alternatives, says Johanna Håkansson.

Risk rating of all products

Clas Ohlson has clear procedures when introducing a brand-new product into their range. 2,500 new products are introduced every year and each product is directly rated on a risk scale. A product is given a low risk rating when it comes from a proven supplier and belongs to a product category in which hazardous chemicals are rarely used. A product is given a high risk rating if the product is new and comes from a supplier that is new to Clas Ohlson and if it belongs to a product category in which hazardous chemicals are used. In addition, assessments are carried out on whether the product comes into contact with skin or whether it is intended for children.

Special procedure for high-risk products

For high-risk products, Johanna Håkansson and her team get involved long before the product enters the stores in order to ensure that the product corresponds to the company’s sustainability goals.

– When we start working with a new supplier, we always conduct a full CSR and quality audit. We then review our requirements related to chemicals and the various regulations that apply in our market, and then we carry out analyses and request CE certificates. We also try to look for suppliers and products with third-party certifications such as EU Ecolabel, OEKO-TEX or Nordic Swan, explains Johanna Håkansson.

Lack of transparency

The greatest challenge when working with external brands and suppliers is, according to Johanna Håkansson, the resistance to transparency.

– There are too many ‘trade secrets’ in the industry,” says Johanna Håkansson, and continues with a laugh:

– A colleague of mine who is an expert in chemistry used to say that trade secrets are the most common CAS number, and I tend to agree.

Johanna Håkansson believes we need more transparency and the right to know more concerning the contents of a product and chemical products, including substances that are not legally required to be disclosed on a safety data sheet.

– To move forward in substitution, we need to do away with prestige and gain different support in the law.

    THREE TIPS FOR SUBSTITUTION

    Johanna Håkansson at Clas Ohlson offers her Top 3 tips for companies looking to start working with substitution.

    1. Get to know your products: if you know your products and their functions inside out, it will be easier to find substitutes that work while also retaining performance.
    2. Read about chemicals: the more you know about hazardous chemicals, the easier it will be to set requirements for suppliers.
    3. Join a network – or create one: every company in your industry is grappling with substitution, don’t be afraid to discuss and debate various issues with an industry colleague.
    Anna Jacobs

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    Anna Jacobs

    Centrumledare för substitutionscentrum

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