Danish retail giant: 'Why use endocrine-disrupting substances if we can use alternatives?'

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COOP, Denmark's leading retailer, with about 1,200 supermarkets, lives by the precautionary principle and has therefore removed all endocrine-disrupting chemicals from its products. This gives consumers a choice, says Malene Teller Blume.

Malene Teller Blume is compliance manager for non-food products at COOP and recently spoke at the European Consumer Organisation's (BEUC) conference on chemicals in Brussels in June. Blume spoke to EurActiv's Henriette Jacobsen.

What is COOP’s policy on chemicals?

COOP’s policy is that we really want to make use of the precautionary principle when we believe the legislation is imprecise or not strong enough and if we know that alternatives, that can be used, exist. Why wait for the endocrine-disrupting substances to have an effect if we have the opportunity to use other substances?

Therefore, we have for many years had our own requirements on products. These requirements go further than the legislation. We out-phased the endocrine disruptors six years ago, long before other retailers. We have a ban against allergenic perfume substances and preservatives in non-food products.

We are owned by our members and we are the biggest in Denmark, so when COOP makes these decisions on getting rid of allergenic substances in hand soaps in both discount products but also more expensive brands, and we might sell one million hand soaps per year, then it makes a difference for the development of hand soaps in Denmark.   

So you make your own products and then you also have requirements for those who want to sell their products in your stores?

Yes. We have more than 3,000 products within our own brand. This is where we work specifically with the product requirements, deciding what we don’t want in our products.

What reaction have you received from the industry?

I think they recognise that this kind of market also exists in Denmark. The consumers are knowledgeable and critical and they want choices. We know this because slowly other retailers have followed. We have worked with this for many years before anything was known as CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility]. Others have also realised that this is the way forward. We know that chemicals affect in a negative way and if it’s possible to do something to avoid the risk you ought to do that. It’s here to stay. The more we move in this direction, the more the industry also recognises this approach.

What can you say in terms of sales?

The sale is tremendous of our brand Änglamark, which is our ‘responsible’ brand, and counts for both food and non-food products. We have white and green products. The white products are energy-saving products and the green are the environment-friendly products. Those products come in at the top three within all product categories in terms of sales. If it’s not Änglamark, then it’s other brands that look like it.

Therefore, we have a really good example of responsibility and good products can come together and be a great commercial success.

Besides what you see in terms of sales, what do the consumers say?

“Great job”. They recognise our work. Therefore, we have been able to keep expanding our product series slowly as they have been commercial successes all the way around. We now have more than 600 products with the Änglamark brand.

How were these policies introduced in the first place?

It’s part of our DNA, actually. We started as a cooperative movement 140 years ago [COOP is owned by the cooperative FDB which comprises 1.7 million members of the Danish Consumers' Cooperative Society]. Therefore, we have been owned by our members. Of course it’s about earning money, but at the same time there has always been a demand of social responsibility. We do a lot of good things outside the shops as well. So it’s in our DNA to make a difference. This is what we expect of ourselves, it’s what our customers expect of us and what the authorities and society expect of us.

From reporting on chemicals, I have got the impression that the French, Danish and Swedish populations are the most worried about chemicals in the EU. Why do Danish consumers care so much about what chemicals go into their everyday products?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. We have good NGOs in Denmark who have put this on the agenda. We also have authorities who want to be first-movers and make a difference. They are among those who are moving the most on endocrine-disrupting substances. They are making lots of information campaigns. We are also a nation that has introduced the “Swan label” [label on environment-friendly products], and this is COOP’s merit, which makes it easier for consumers to choose. It makes it easier if you have a conviction so that you are also able to act according to your conviction.  

I think this is about many things, but we are an enlightened population and we are used to making demands regarding the products we buy.

It was very interesting when I spoke at BEUC’s conference because I suddenly realised how unique the Danish and Swedish markets are. BEUC told me that you can’t buy any environmental-friendly products in Southern Europe. If you want those products, you have to go to organic, specialised shops. But this doesn’t mean the products don’t entail parabenes [an endocrine-disruptor] because they don’t have a focus on this. These sort of products are now discount products in Denmark. People could hardly believe it when I told them about our sales, and that we removed allergenic perfume substances, parabenes and endocrine disruptors all the way back in the 1990s.

What would you advise a consumer to do if he/she wants more products without chemicals in their shops?

I would encourage the suppliers to start labeling their products with the EU’s environment flower on personal hygiene products. Then you would have transparent criteria to give you more assurance around health and the environment. It would be more difficult to start developing new labels and gain consumer trust. Use the recognised consumer labels on products. If there is a market in Denmark, then there is a market elsewhere. Other retailers can gain market shares if they start moving now. They can give consumers a choice.  

If consumers changed their minds and told you that they’d rather keep products with certain chemicals because the chemicals made the products nicer or better, would that make you change your mind about them?

No. Not within our own brands. You can still buy the other brands in our shops. This is also still our policy: consumers should have a choice. We don’t have just ‘holy’ consumers. We also have consumers who want the other products. This we also respect. People are different and we have all segments in our shops. Sometimes we make the choice for the consumers. For example, you can’t buy eggs from caged hens in some shops. This was very controversial.

Retailers should come up with a work plan, a strategy, and use it as a marketing tool. We don’t discriminate among brands. When we have the requirements, we follow our rules and we are consistent. This also makes it easier to market this to the consumers.

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