CLEVELAND — If Greenpeace's Earth Day activities amounted to a declaration of war against the U.S. vinyl industry, the Chemical Fabrics and Film Association, working with other industry groups, is preparing a counterattack.
That was the message delivered by speakers at CFFA's Critical Environmental Issues Seminar for the Flexible Vinyl Industry, held April 29 in Cleveland. Industry representatives discussed a number of issues, including product stewardship and how to deal directly with Greenpeace.
The timing of the seminar was ironic, according to event organizer and moderator Jeff Rezin, chairman of the CFFA's Environmental Committee. While the seminar had been planned six months in advance, it came just a week after Greenpeace launched its ``PVC — The Poison Plastic'' campaign April 22.
The environmental group's campaign includes the claim that PVC is the largest source of dioxins in the environment. Some dioxins are listed as known cancer-causing chemicals by the Environmental Protection Agency, and are linked to other health problems.
More than 100 people attended the industry seminar, a larger-than-usual number for a CFFA event, Rezin said. The best way for industry to defend itself against environmental attacks is to share its information with other members, customers and the public, he added.
``We want to make sure people understand what the issues are,'' he said. ``We want them to know there is sound science available to discuss the issues.''
To help fend off attacks, vinyl suppliers and processors have to get to customers and the public first, Rezin said.
``Communication is extremely important,'' he said, adding that product stewardship — in which companies encourage environmentally correct handling of their products from cradle to grave — must be a major component of efforts to combat negative perceptions of the industry.
But the open communications model does not apply to dealings with Greenpeace itself, according to David Meeker of Edward Howard & Co., an Akron, Ohio, public relations firm representing the Vinyl Institute of Morristown, N.J.
``The more willing you are to talk with Greenpeace, and the more information you give them, is more ammunition for them to use against you,'' Meeker said, alleging the group will use even innocuous information like end-use product lists to build its own list of products for boycotts.
Greenpeace also is reluctant to talk to industries, said Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace's toxins campaign.
``Industry almost exclusively uses Greenpeace's and other environmental group's comments
out of context,'' he said. ``So that's advice we also take to heart when talking to industry.''
Presenting a unified front — with a unified message — is the key to keeping Greenpeace from getting a public relations headlock on the industry, Meeker said.
``Keep everybody in the loop,'' Meeker said. ``They should understand the vulnerabilities of your product, and they should understand the strengths.''
The best tactic for handling environmental questions is to turn them over to a trade association, Meeker said. One thing never to do with Greenpeace is make concessions, he said.
``You will never be able to compromise with Greenpeace,'' he said. ``Any concession you make will only encourage them to ask for more.''
But Hind said Greenpeace is willing to compromise—to a point.
``We're proud to have high standards and to be uncompromising in terms of principle,'' said. ``But we realize problems can't be solved overnight. Transitions have to be orderly and fair to all the stakeholders. Timing and timetables are the places we think compromise can occur rather than principles.''
Hind cited the different ways Greenpeace deals with the Fabric Care Institute, with which it has reached an agreement for the gradual withdrawal of perchloral ethylene dry cleaning fluid, and the paper industry, with which Greenpeace has no accord.
``You will notice we are much more critical of the paper industry than fabrics,'' Hind said.
In the face of any amount of environmental opposition, Mark Sofman, manager of industry affairs for the Vinyl Institute, stressed the need for industry unity.
``[Greenpeace's] strategy is to divide and conquer,'' he said. ``They try to cull out the weak members of the herd. Their frontal assaults have not been very effective up to this point.''
For all the attention speakers gave to Greenpeace, some tried to play down the group's power.
Greenpeace's latest campaign ``was not very significant or damaging to the industry,'' Sofman claimed. ``To the general public, vinyl is just another plastic.''
``They really do not have anything like the reach we tend to give them,'' Meeker said. ``If the industry uses its head, we will prevail in this situation.''
Greenpeace's Hind chalked such thoughts up to ``wishful thinking.''
``We're the world's largest environmental organization and should be taken seriously,'' he said. ``We don't need PVC, and the world would be much better off without it.''
Industry members take a completely opposite view.
``PVC is a really good product,'' Meeker said. ``I'm tired of people apologizing for a product when you should be bragging about it.''