There was an item in the San Francisco Chronicle this week about Make it Better, a bakery in the Castro that packs its goodies in a box that says “I f***ed up.” Cupcakes seem like a good way to signal repentance, and I’d like to suggest that Steve Wasik, the CEO of water-bottle manufacturer SIGG Switzerland, order a few thousand. Because, as Wasik is learning, when a company gets caught withholding information from its customers, some serious groveling is in order.
The SIGG imbroglio might be a little hard to comprehend if you don’t closely follow the controversy over Bisphenol A, or BPA, the estrogen-mimicking compound found in polycarbonate plastic bottles and canned food linings. For years, the plastics industry has denied that BPA poses a health risk, even bankrolling some very questionable science to get the FDA to back it up. But in recent years, even as industry obfuscated and regulators dithered, consumers have begun giving BPA a wide berth. As word spreads about BPA’s potential to cause diabetes, brain damage, developmental abnormalities, and pre-cancerous changes to the breast, prostrate, and testes, glass baby bottles and metal water bottles are enjoying a sudden spike in popularity. With 93 percent of the population already having measurable amounts of BPA in their bloodstreams, many consumers figured they’d already reached their maximum dose.
(The clarity of consumer preference on this issue has spooked the canned food industry so badly that this spring a number of can manufacturers huddled with customers like Coca Cola to see if they could design a PR campaign that would allow them to keep using BPA. Notes from the meeting were leaked to the Washington Post, which reported that the industry hoped to find a “pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA.” Good luck with that.)
The bad news about BPA has been good news for SIGG, which makes aluminum water bottles that are coated with an internal epoxy liner to protect the liquid inside from any aluminum contamination (aluminum has been associated with health risks of its own). SIGG bottles weigh less than the stainless steel bottles produced by rival company Kleen Kanteen, and they’re cheaper. Both factors have made them a popular choice for people who were reluctantly abandoning plastic.
Then, about a year and half ago, people began asking SIGG what exactly was in that epoxy lining. Green gizmo bloggers at treehugger.com queried Wasik about whether the lining was BPA-free and were told that the lining’s composition was a proprietary trade secret. Wasik shared the results of independent testing that showed that there was no leaching of BPA from SIGG bottles even after 2 years of rough treatment and Treehugger concluded that was good enough, saying:
“We are not sure if the lining of SIGG bottles is made with BPA or not, but we like the results of the testing, which is what really matters.”
Given that response, SIGG can be forgiven for having failed to predict the outcry that would follow last month’s low-key announcement that their linings had indeed contained BPA at one time. SIGG’s intention was to highlight the fact that their linings had been BPA-free for the past year, but what ended up dominating the environmental blogosphere was outrage over the fact that the linings had ever contained BPA at all. Bloggers, particularly those with young children, described feeling “angry,” “betrayed,” and “disheartened,.”
“I'm feeling kind of like I did when I found out that John Edwards cheated on his wife. It isn't the worst thing to ever happen in this world, but I still feel really disappointed because I thought SIGG to be a genuinely green company.”
That, of course is the heart of the issue. Convinced that the plastics industry couldn’t be trusted, consumers put their trust in SIGG, assuming that the company felt the same way about BPA that they did. SIGG, while quietly searching for a new BPA-free formula, couldn’t bring itself to be forthright about the old formula until a new one was found. As corporate sins go, this seems to me to be venal rather than mortal. No one is saying the old lining leached BPA, and it’s a lot better to formulate a new lining than to go searching for a pregnant woman to tell consumers they should be happy with the old one.
But what SIGG has learned the hard way is that the cover-up almost always gets you into more trouble than the original crime (remember Watergate?). In a world in which all of us are exposed to toxins simply by breathing air and drinking water, any corporation’s concern about revealing its proprietary formula rings a bit hollow. Being green means coming clean – trade secrets be damned. Companies like Dell and Herman Miller, in fact, share their best green practices with one another, knowing that creating a greener supply chain will end up benefitting everyone.
Wasik recently posted a mea culpa on Huffington Post, which indicates he knows where his U.S. customers hang out. As corporate apologies go, it’s a pretty good one.
“I am still learning to be a green CEO,” he writes. “When I took this position, I naively assumed that "green" meant being a steward of the environment. . .However, being a green company also means being held to the highest degree of corporate transparency. Some executives learn this because they have grown up within the green movement. I have learned this by reading hundreds of emails from SIGG consumers.”Whether Wasik’s repentance – and his offer to replace old SIGG bottles with new ones – will satisfy these angry consumers remains to be seen. Repentance tends to work best when its accompanied by real change. SIGG has already reformulated its bottle liners but I’d like to see the company advocate for real transparency around toxic chemicals. How about supporting SB 797, now pending in the California State Assembly, which would ban BPA from baby products like bottles and formula cans? Or lobbying in favor of the Kid Safe Chemical Act, which would require chemical makers to document the safety of their products before they go on the market? There’s a lot Wasik can do to show that it really understands that the discussion was never about which water bottle to buy. It was about giving consumers the freedom to assess risks based on a full disclosure of the facts. Transparent companies rarely need to give cupcakes.