The following is a guest essay from Peter Montague1, executive director of the Environmental Research Foundation.
The Sierra Club’s national board voted on March 25 to remove the leaders of the Club’s 35,000-member Florida chapter, and to suspend the chapter for four years. It was the first time in the Club’s 116-year history that such action has been taken against a state chapter.
The leadership of the Florida chapter had been highly critical of the national board’s decision in mid-December 2007 to allow The Clorox Company to use the Sierra Club’s name and logo to market a new line of non-chlorinated cleaning products called “Green Works.” In return, Clorox Company will pay Sierra Club an undisclosed fee, based partly on product sales. The Clorox Company logo will appear on the products as well. A 2004 report [PDF] by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund named The Clorox Company as one of the nation’s most chemically dangerous.
The Clorox deal has angered and embittered Club members all across the country, not just in Florida. Since the deal was announced in January, the Club’s national leadership has deflected many requests by Club members to see the text of the legal agreement signed with Clorox. Johanna O’Kelley, the Club’s director of Licensing & Cause-Related Marketing, will say only that the amount of money involved is “substantial.” Carl Pope, the Club’s executive director, has said that money was not the driving factor behind the deal: “Our focus was on consumers who otherwise would not migrate to a safer product because they wouldn’t be sure it wasn’t green scamming,” Mr. Pope has written. The idea is that the Clorox logo will convince people the products will work, and the Sierra Club logo will convince people the products are environmentally preferable.
Third parties are already benefiting from the deal. John Ulrich, who heads the Chemical Industry Council of California, claims broadly that “the chemical industry is moving toward developing and marketing safer, more eco-friendly products, pointing to Oakland-based Clorox Co.’s new line of ‘green’ cleaning products that have been endorsed by the Sierra Club,” according to a recent news report. As he spoke, Mr. Ulrich was using the Sierra Club/Clorox deal to try to deflect attention away from a new report [PDF] showing that the chemical industry sickens and kills thousands of Californians each year, costing the state an estimated $2.6 billion in medical expenses and lost wages.
With 2007 revenues of $4.8 billion, The Clorox Company is best-known for its namesake chlorine bleach. The company also manufactures and sells other cleaning products, including Pine-Sol, Clorox Clean-Up, Formula 409, Liquid Plumr, Armor All, plus STP auto-care products, Fresh Step and Scoop Away cat litter, Kingsford charcoal, Hidden Valley and K.C. Masterpiece salad dressings and sauces, Brita water- filtration systems, and Glad bags, wraps and containers. With 7,800 employees worldwide, the company manufactures products in more than two dozen countries and markets them in more than 100 countries.
In its most recent 10-K filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Clorox acknowledges this:
The Company is currently involved in or has potential liability with respect to the remediation of past contamination in the operation of some of its currently and formerly owned and leased facilities. In addition, some of its present and former facilities have been or had been in operation for many years and, over that time, some of these facilities may have used substances or generated and disposed of wastes that are or may be considered hazardous.
The Company handles and/or transports hazardous substances, including but not limited to chlorine, at its plant sites, including the rail transit of liquid chlorine from its point of origin to our manufacturing facilities. A release of such chemicals, whether in transit or at our facilities, due to accident or an intentional act, could result in substantial liability.
The Clorox Company seems an especially unlikely partner for Sierra Club because many environmental organizations in the U.S., including many members of the Sierra Club, have been working to eliminate chlorine chemistry for the past 15 years. Supporters of the deal point out that it is a step toward that goal. Critics are asking, Who’s next for partnerships? DuPont? Dow? Monsanto?
According to postings on the Club’s “Clubhouse” website,
- The Club’s Corporate Relations Committee examined the proposed deal with Clorox and rejected it, but it was overridden by the national board of directors.
- The Club’s Toxics Committee was not consulted before the deal was signed.
- The Club’s Corporate Financial Acceptance Policy says, in part, “The Club will not endorse products.”
Among grassroots Club members, the process for making the decision, as much as the decision itself, is cause for anger and dismay. The Club has 1.3 million dues-paying members, many of whom are active volunteers in their local communities. Volunteers and paid national staff sometimes have different perspectives on what’s most important to the Club.
When grassroots members pointed out that Clorox was fined $95,000 for violating U.S. pesticide laws just as the deal with the Club was being brokered, staffer Johanna O’Kelley dismissed Clorox’s culpability, saying their violation was “a technicality.”
According to a report in Florida’s Palm Beach Post, “Many past and present chapter leaders have declined to speak publicly about the dispute, with some saying they fear punishment from the national organization. In a recent letter, the club instructed leaders not to ‘seek public media coverage of this internal board decision.'”
On the Club’s “Clubhouse” web site, several Club members have called for a full national membership referendum on the Clorox deal, but so far the national staff in San Francisco have not adopted that suggestion.
1Disclosure: Peter Montague is a member of the Sierra Club.