I had an interesting meeting yesterday at the British Retail Consortium who invited me in to speak about ‘Responsible Innovation and the role of retailers’ to their Chemicals Working Group. This group is made up of individuals tasked with assessing the safety of products using chemicals and associated issues at the leading retailers in the UK; it’s also where nano sits.
My presentation seemed to go down well. Following input from our stakeholder meeting earlier in the week I proposed that retailers had a pivotal role in oversight of new technologies for the following reasons:
- They are the link between products and the public
- Can act as a catalyst for good practice in others
- They need to insist on better quality information for customer safety
- ..and insist on better quality information for their own risk management
- Consider innovative responses to their own stretch targets on innovation, energy, waste etc
Those present seemed to agree that retailers had an unique position in the supply chain and that as gatekeepers on behalf of the consumer they had an important role as a catalyst for good practice.
They didn’t appear to shy away from this responsibility, however, in the discussion afterwards it was clear that there were some things getting in the way of them doing that as effectively as they might, particularly in nanotechnologies:
Nano, wot nano?
- Retailers have policies on nano, requesting companies using nanotechnologies to disclose that to them in advance. But this rarely comes up, except with sunscreens, because they don’t see any products using nano brought to them.
- They don’t think there are many nano enhanced products they stock unknowingly, but cannot be sure.
- They don’t know where to go to find out if this is a matter of inadequate disclosure, or just that nano is not much used in consumer products at the moment.
How are they supposed to know?
I hear a lot that there are very few nano enhanced innovations in the consumer products area. It seems logical that if this is an expensive technology, with the benefit needing to be clear in order to justify its use, that this would be part of the sales spiel from the manufacturer. This is not happening.
A retailer known for its positive approach to innovation and rigorous approach to governance said to me in a meeting earlier in the week:
‘To be honest, we think there isn’t much nano out there, because if it was, someone would have tried to sell it to us. We just don’t see it and from what we know about nano, it looks more likely that it is not that it is being hidden, so much as not being used. People seem to be being precautionary in this area.’
What information can be given to retailers to help them make those judgements in the absence of legislation mandating disclosure? Where can they go to get it? I didn’t have an answer for them.
Responding to consumer concerns – no information either
The difficulties of obtaining information on risks was also seen as a problem. ‘The public asks us some very unusual things and sometimes it is very hard to get information to respond to them properly. When we can find it, most of it seems to be in subscription only journals and often very difficult to translate for the public,’ explained one.
These retailers have thousands of products and thousands of ‘material issues’ of concern to different types of stakeholder. They are not able to subscribe to all of the arcane journals pertaining to all of their products or the ingredients contained in them.
Clearly a central repository of information on nanotechnologies for example, freely accessible, would be useful to help them respond and engage effectively with their customers and other professional stakeholders?
There is, for example, the Nano Observatory, but they don’t seem to communicate well to people outside the immediate nano community. These types of organisation should see communications as a central part of what they do, whereas the it seems to me the focus of such organisations is on data gathering, not getting the data out to the people who need it.
Anticipating negative impacts – nano silver exclusions?
Some of the retailers have specific exclusions – nano silver being the one mentioned at the meeting and in previous discussions with retailers. Not for direct health and safety reasons, but because of concerns about anti-bacterial resistance.
How do they get quality information for valid exclusions on nano products like this? Often it is down to their own research, which naturally has to be limited given the number of issues and number of products they have to track. Who can they trust to give them quality information which they can relay to the consumer? I didn’t have much of an answer again.
If people are ‘not bothered’ what is their responsibility to communicate?
One of the retailers had done its own research to understand consumer views on nanotechnology, for their own purposes. (I’m trying to get a copy!) They found that the public wasn’t really that bothered about nano products at the moment, (much like most public research on the subject). Where does this lead them in terms of their own communication? If the products are not available, their customers are not interested, and there is limited information to make judgements about specific risks and opportunities, perhaps focusing on area where customers are clamouring for information looks like a much better use of their time and money?
Please don’t give us pointless products!
All the retailers I speak to appeal to manufacturers, ‘please don’t bring us pointless products using a technology for the sake of it, which doesn’t bring a benefit and where you clearly haven’t thought through the risks. But do use new technologies to solve some of the big problems we all face in a way which offers real benefits and is safe to use, we are desperate for those.’
Seems a sensible request to me!
So whilst I felt there was a willingness to get stuck in to the issues on nanotechnologies in consumer products, I was sympathetic to their concerns about lack of useful information. I didn’t know where to send them myself. Of course that’s what www.nanoandme.orgwas invented for, and which remains unfunded. Which I did drop into the conversation!
If you would like a copy of the presentation I gave then do email me on email@example.com. Our report on Responsible Research and Innovation prepared at the request of the European Commission is also available on the front of our website or here