Over the last few years, bisphenol A (BPA) has become a green-household word, thanks to government and academic studies that link the monomer—a building block in many plastics we use every day—with developmental and other human health problems. Concerns over the chemical’s safety led to regulators in many states proposing bans on BPA in food and beverage containers, and many packaging manufactures started removing BPA from their products voluntarily—or at least it led them to profess the safety of their products.
One such company, Sigg, suffered a backlash earlier this month after its CEO admitted that the company hadn’t really been above board on the whole BPA thing… You can read more about that dust-up here. But consumers aren’t the only ones who feel shafted by Sigg’s reversal. Outdoor clothing and gear company Patagonia announced last week that it had terminated its partnership with Sigg, through which it had developed a co-branded water bottle. (It is also offering consumers full refunds for their Patagonia-branded Sigg bottles.)
In a statement, Rick Ridgeway, Patagonia’s VP of environmental initiatives, said the retailer asked Sigg on a number of occasions whether its water bottles contain BPA (in the bottle liner) and that Sigg “clearly said there was not.” Later in the statement he refers to this as “thorough due diligence.”
I called Jen Rapp, Patagonia’s director of communication, to ask whether there was more to this due diligence process, outside of making these queries of Sigg. There was not, she told me.
At Patagonia, sustainability is a major focus. A huge focus. From its buildings to its labor practices to the transparency of its supply chain, the company calculates the true cost of its products and strives to source sustainable fabrics and other materials. So how can this kind of thing happen? Rapp says it’s because Patagonia manufactures most of the products it sells. And most of those that it doesn’t make in-house are pretty environmentally innocuous items, such as books. The Sigg bottle was an exception, it seems. And it was not innocuous at all—at least from a public relations perspective.
As far as Sigg is concerned, the bottles it produced prior to switching to BPA-free liners in late 2008 were not harmful to consumers’ health. This was backed, it said, by extensive tests that showed no leaching of BPA into the water. Of course, that’s cold comfort to Sigg customers—especially the ones who had earlier been evangelizing Sigg bottles as great alternatives to plastic water bottles. The biggest damage here is losing consumer’s trust—something that the statement Patagonia released seemed aimed squarely at trying to prevent.
So what’s the lesson here? Should Patagonia have done more to vet Sigg’s claims? Should it have put the water bottles through the same scrutiny through which it paces its in-house wares—a process described in some detail on the company’s Footprint Chronicles page?
Or do think Patagonia did as much as it needed to go by asking, and trusting, Sigg? (After all, aren’t we supposed to trust the companies with whom we partner?)
Plus, what’s the best course of action for other companies and organizations that have partnered with Sigg? If you buy a Drop of Hope Sigg bottle, $5 of your purchase goes to the Jane Goodall Institute and its efforts to provide clean drinking water in Africa. Should the Goodall group continue this relationship?
It will be interesting to see how well or poorly Sigg emerges from this fiasco. Its CEO has issued numerous apologies—including one published at HuffPo. But Rapp says there’s nothing that Sigg can possibly do to ever win back Patagonia’s partnership.