If you doubt the importance of public image to corporate America, consider this tale of vinyl, charity and Habitat for Humanity.
The vinyl industry, through the Vinyl Institute trade group, long has been involved with Habitat, helping the charity build 27 houses and donating more than $1.3 million worth of material in the past decade.
And VI never has been shy about letting the world know that, issuing news releases and peppering its Web pages with details, including that the industry pledged $1 million to Habitat in 2001.
But when environmentalists signed up to build one Habitat house made entirely without vinyl, and started issuing their own news releases and Web pages, industry cried foul: VI wrote a sharply worded letter to Habitat's president complaining that PVC was being maligned.
Some would say what's good for the goose should be good for the gander - both sides are building, both sides are touting their good works, and both sides seem to be banking on the public attention drawn from their involvement with Habitat.
But VI doesn't see it that way.
The group's Feb. 26 letter to Habitat President Millard Fuller said Greenpeace and the Healthy Building Network are ``advancing a political agenda ... exploiting the humanitarian ideals and works of Habitat for Humanity ... [and] trying to use Habitat to injure our industry in spite of (or because of) our strong record of commitment.''
Tim Burns, president and chief executive officer of Arlington, Va.-based VI, said in a March 9 interview that environmentalists should speak in positive terms about what materials they use, rather than bashing vinyl.
In short, VI is asking Habitat to scold Greenpeace - a group famous for infiltrating trade shows in superhero costumes and using rubber dinghies to stop whale boats and warships - for using inappropriate language.
``If [environmental groups] are going to follow the mission of Habitat, they will discuss what they are building it with, not by talking about what they are not using,'' Burns said.
A Greenpeace Web site that mentions its Habitat work uses strong language about PVC, calling it one of the ``most toxic-producing industries on the planet.''
Burns said VI does not have a political agenda in its Habitat work: ``Our commitment to Habitat is professional and deeply personal. ... It touches you in ways that few things in your life will.''
Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's toxics campaign, said building the PVC-free house with Habitat's chapter in New Orleans is entirely consistent with its campaign against vinyl. Greenpeace argues that the pollution from vinyl manufacturing falls disproportionately on low-income communities near factories.
Greenpeace wants to demonstrate that it is possible to build a $55,000 home without vinyl, and plans to make a video and report of the project to give to other Habitat chapters and those interested in low-income housing, he said. Construction starts March 18.
For Hind, VI's protests have a larger meaning. He sees them as stemming in part from protecting the large construction market for PVC products, including from a challenge that PVC is not green. The U.S. Green Building Council, for example, is debating whether to consider vinyl an environmentally friendly material.
He said he thinks VI doth protest too much.
``There's this one little house that they are very insecure about being built,'' Hind said.
VI, for its part, said it's flattered that the environmental groups now are imitating industry's involvement with Habitat, hopes they will build more, and is objecting only to Greenpeace's strident language.
But Bill Walsh, head of the Washington-based Healthy Building Network, said he believes the VI letter has the unwritten agenda of intimidating Habitat, because it begins by talking about the industry's substantial contributions to the charity.
Whatever their motives, both groups clearly are focusing their Habitat work in Louisiana, where issues of pollution from the many vinyl and chemical factories are being debated publicly. VI reminded Fuller in its letter that it worked on two projects with Habitat in Louisiana in 2003, and has more planned in the state this year and in 2005.
Habitat, which has built 150,000 homes since 1976, had a simple response: It asked Greenpeace officials to ``focus on the positive aspects of their materials,'' but also noted that it can't ask the groups not to talk about their environmental positions.
Habitat spokesman Duane Bates said the group would prefer to ``see the discussion framed around the need for affordable housing, rather than seeing it turned into a political debate.''
In spite of that, it seems both sides probably will continue to tout their Habitat work.