The backdrop here is that the Sierra Club and green investment group Walden Asset Management have been campaigning for several months to persuade SC Johnson, Coca-Cola Co., Clorox Co. and other companies to pressure the plastics industry around bans.
Specifically, the environmentalists want those big consumer facing companies to pressure the plastics industry to stop a lobbying campaign in state governments for new laws that prevent local governments from banning or taxing plastic bags.
The laws, which amount to a statewide ban of local bans, are sometimes called preemption or uniformity laws. They're on the books in 10 states and are being debated in more state capitals, as the bag industry's counter response to statewide laws seeking to ban bags.
So how is the fight going?
The environmental groups are claiming some success. They point to a recent announcement from Clorox that it was leaving the plastics association.
Clorox CEO Benno Dorer told Sierra Club in a Dec. 20 letter that his company was leaving the association at the end of 2018, writing that "we have decided to focus on organizations that most align with our business and corporate responsibility priorities."
Dorer's letter came directly in reply to a Nov. 21 letter from the Sierra Club about bag bans. To Sierra Club and Walden, they see it as Clorox responding to their letters and social media campaign.
But the plastics association has a different interpretation and said the campaign's had no effect.
Mia Freis Quinn, vice president of communications for the association, says that Clorox's resignation letter does not mention plastic bag policies. She said that no company has told the association it was leaving over bag policies.
"Members come and go," she said. "Unfortunately, we never want to lose a member, but it does happen. Things such as budget cuts impact participation. We actually track engagement metrics for our members and I think Clorox was at risk."
Quinn said the association would prefer that the Sierra Club "work with us to help implement some meaningful and sustainable advances. I think that would be more productive than bullying our members."
Clorox did not respond to emails and messages for clarification.
There are a handful of other departures the two sides are sparring over. Sierra Club claims that women's fashion chain Ascena Retail Group, the parent company of retailer Ann Taylor, left in response to their campaign.
But Quinn said Ascena's departure was unrelated — the company left the plastics association at the end of 2017, before the environmental groups began their campaign.
And finally, Sierra and Walden point to a third company, medical device maker Becton, Dickinson & Co., as leaving the plastics group over bag issues.
Walden said it wrote to BD last summer about the bag issue, and BD wrote back in August that it would leave the plastics group.
The medical device maker did note in its letter that "recent lobbying positions taken by the Association are inconsistent with BD's views on sustainability," but it did not specify what those positions were.
Outside of the SC Johnson letter, there's probably enough wiggle room to allow both sides to make claims on the meaning — or lack of meaning — in each of the various departures or letters.
The head of the plastic bag industry's trade association said he was not worried.
"If they can put this pressure on and they think groups like ours are going to stop representing our members, that's just silly," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the Washington-based American Progressive Bag Alliance.
He said the bag industry advocates state laws restricting local bans as a way to counteract the statewide bag bans environmental groups pursue.
Seaholm said he believes the Sierra Club and Walden are blowing the issue out of proportion: "I haven't seen any companies say they are leaving [the association] for the reasons that the Sierra Club and Walden want them to."
While SC Johnson is not leaving the association, its letter does specifically note concerns over the industry's plastic bag lobbying campaigns.
The company told the Sierra Club it was choosing to remain in the plastics association but said it sought clarification that its financial contributions did not support the industry's plastic bag lobbying.
SC Johnson's letter said that the company recently spoke to the plastics association and was "assured that our dues do not go toward funding the American Progressive Bag Alliance ... and their opposition to plastic bag bans."
"[The association] has been advocating for programs including the need for expansion of recycling technologies and waste systems that we support; however, we will ensure that our position on bans is clear to the association," Fisk Johnson wrote.
Time will tell if SC Johnson's endorsement of some single-use plastics bans will be a canary in a coal mine.
With the rapid rise in concerns around ocean plastic and waste, will more companies adopt SC Johnson's thinking? If they do, that could limit the plastic industry's maneuvering room around bans and other plastic waste policy.
Or, maybe SC Johnson's thinking on bans will remain more of an outlier among consumer product companies, and in this case, there's no canary and no coal mine. Time will tell.