What's in a name? Ask Philip Morris, the holding company for a tobacco producer that changed its name to the benign, sunny-sounding “Altria.”
Ask Andersen Consulting, which, after the Enron debacle, felt its prospects might improve under the new, softer “Accenture” handle.
Or ask my ex-colleagues at Greenpeace.
When bad press makes your brand name a liability, environmental activists, like big businesses, re-brand.
Greenpeace USA campaigner Bill Walsh committed to the elimination of vinyl 15 years ago. He targeted large industrial PVC users — primarily the health-care construction sector — and commissioned “PVC: The Product is the Poison” for Greenpeace in 1991.
The anti-PVC campaign floundered.
Greenpeace USA had cried wolf one too many times. With credibility down, U.S. membership fell from some 1 million members to 300,000. By the late 1990s, the organization was in financial crisis. It slashed budgets and laid off staff. Greenpeace USA's entire board resigned.
Executive Director Barbara Dudley resigned from the lead staff role at Greenpeace USA in May 1997 after five difficult years in Washington.
Greenpeace was also in trouble north of the border. Revenue Canada revoked the charitable status of Greenpeace Canada in 1989, amid concerns the organization was not providing a discernible benefit to the public.
With Greepeace's reputation tarnished, Bill Walsh would need a new vehicle to continue targeting the PVC industry.
Fast-forward to 2005. The Healthy Building Network has replaced Greenpeace as the leading opponent of PVC. The name has changed, but the Greenpeace-fostered zeal remains.
Who is HBN?
At a recent builder and architect conference in Boston, HBN representatives introduced themselves as members of “a coalition of architects, designers and health-care professionals.”
But branding isn't everything. Let's look behind the curtain of HBN senior campaigners.
HBN spokesperson Paul Bogart served as political director for Greenpeace USA. Joe Thornton authored the 1997 Greenpeace USA document “Planning the Transition to a Chlorine-Free Economy.” Tom Lent was the Greenpeace contact for a 1995 report called “Dirty Deals for Dirty Energy.” Margie Kelly is a former Greenpeace USA toxics campaigner, former Director of the Oregon Toxics Alliance and spouse of Joe Thornton.
Tellingly, the HBN Web site biographies fail to mention Greenpeace, when HBN staff are virtually all former Greenpeace activists.
It's not just PVC these activists are attacking. As Walsh recently remarked: “I've got this collection of voodoo dolls representing the flacks from the Vinyl Institute, the American Chemical Society, the American Forest & Paper Association, and the other 997 trade associations. … Each day, after reading their latest press release on the PR Newswire, I adjust the pins.”
Walsh helped Greenpeace push Australia into adopting the precautionary principle (prohibiting materials or activities if you simply suspect they may cause harm) for its 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, needlessly driving up costs by an estimated $10 million and in fact undermining the sustainability of the Games.
Bill Walsh and his associates are activists. They do not have the credentials to properly inform the public about the science behind green building.
Having rebranded themselves, the same old Greenpeace staffers are engaged in the same old unscientific alarmism that had become impossible to continue under the tarnished Greenpeace moniker. These activists are trying to regain their credibility and fund-raising capacity — not by focusing on real environmental issues — but by simply changing their name.
Most disturbing is their campaign to ban vinyl from hospitals and health-care facilities. If they were successful, the result would not be positive environmental change. The result would be more-expensive and less-effective health care, with no positive social gain.
Wood, concrete, steel, and plastic all have an impact on the environment. Through Lifecycle Analysis, green building experts such as the Washington-based U.S. Green Building Council have correctly determined that vinyl has no more impact on human health than any other building material. In fact, vinyl building products have benefits: consider the energy efficiency of vinyl windows or reflective vinyl roofing, or the durability of rust-proof, corrosion-proof PVC pipe, which conserves water, a precious resource.
For many applications, vinyl is the best choice. The best way to deliver affordable, safe drinking water is to add chlorine and put it in a vinyl pipe. The best way to insulate electrical wiring is with a vinyl coating. In hospitals, floors and wall coverings use vinyl widely. Vinyl is a durable, cost-effective siding for buildings because of its low maintenance and long life. Building with vinyl saves on energy and material costs.
Those vinyl benefits are not what former Greenpeace staffers at HBN want you to hear.
As co-founder of Greenpeace, former director of Greenpeace International and former president of Greenpeace Canada, I am saddened by the direction members of my former organization have taken.
In the interest of efficient, affordable health care, HBN should lift the curtain, declare its Greenpeace roots, and come clean on the science of healthy building.
Patrick Moore is a co-founder of Greenpeace, and now is chairman and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver, Canada.