In David Korten’s 1995 classic book, When Corporations Rule the World, he talks about the three-legged stool of people, government, and business and how an ideal society is the one that achieves a working balance between the interests of these three entities (parallels to the triple bottom line should be clear). To allow any one of the three to achieve dominance is to tilt towards anarchy, socialism, or some kind of feudal hyper-capitalism that subverts the needs of the many to the whims of the privileged and well-connected few.
I don’t think I need to point out which of these states of imbalance we are closest to today, though there are forces at work, pulling on each of these legs, vying to readjust the balance, or, as it were, to tilt it even further.
I found a relatively minor news item last week encouraging as an example of how things actually could work in just such a balanced society. It involved a major multinational corporation, a state government and a number of citizens groups and individuals in an incident in which an agreement was reached that resolved a conflict between the interests of the corporation and that of a group of people, who, as it happens were concerned about protecting the environment and the health of their children. It was an agreement that I believe was ultimately a win-win.
The story actually goes back to 1986, when the state of California passed Proposition 65, which came into law as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act. The law requires businesses to notify the State if their products contain any of a number of toxic substances contained on a list specified in the law. The substances might include additives or ingredients in pesticides, common household products, food, drugs, dyes, or solvents used in manufacturing or construction, or emitted as byproducts.
Twenty five years later, a group called Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), published a report called “Dirty Secrets: What’s Hiding in your Cleaning Products?” which announced that tests showed that Tide, the popular laundry detergent contained 1,4 dioxane, a chemical that the federal Agency for Toxic Substances says is, “reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen,” and one of the chemicals on the Proposition 65 list since 1988.
At the federal level, the FDA encourages manufacturers to remove 1,4, dioxane from their products, but they are not required to do so by law.
After the WVE report came out in 2011, As You Sow, a group that “promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies,” filed a lawsuit, under Prop 65, asking that Procter & Gamble (P&G) add warning labels to all relevant Tide detergent packaging.
The company defended its actions. In a statement last March, spokesman Suzette Middleton told Forbes, “With the amount that we know is in our laundry products, you would have to wash and wear over 1,000 loads of laundry every day to approach the safety levels set by various organizations and regulatory agencies.”
Their argument was not persuasive because the products were, in some cases, being marketed for children and even infants, whose tolerance to these chemicals could be considerably lower than adults. Lori Alper, a Boston-based green advocate, started a Change.org petition asking P&G to remove the carcinogen from Tide. The petition stated (excerpt):
It probably goes without saying that in a house full of boys, we do a lot of laundry. I know that some cleaning products are marketed as safe and healthy, but in truth, what’s in the bottle can hurt you. For example, it turns out that Tide Free & Gentle® isn’t so gentle. A report recently released by Women’s Voices for Earth, Dirty Secrets: What’s Hiding in Your Cleaning Products? found high levels of the cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane in the detergent. 1,4-dioxane doesn’t appear on the product label or on the product website, so consumers have no way of knowing it’s even there. This is especially concerning, because Tide Free & Gentle® is marketed to moms as a healthier choice for their children’s laundry. Infants and children are more vulnerable to chemical exposures, because their immune, neurological, and hormone systems are still developing.
The petition received more than 78,000 signatures.
Last week, in a California courtroom, Procter & Gamble agreed, in response to a consent decree, to reformulate its Tide detergent, such that it will contain less than 25 parts per million of 1,4 dioxane.
The reformulated product is expected to be on the shelves by September with the earlier formulation completely removed from stores soon after.
I think it’s worth noting that many companies have successfully leveraged their vast power and influence to overcome campaigns such as these in the past. However, given the reality of social media, a new tide of transparency and consumer activism is coming in, and as a result, companies are far more aware of the importance of responsiveness to consumer demands. Credit is also to be given to P&G for their willingness to work with this situation and arrive at a resolution that is truly a win-win. In the long run, this will be best for the company, for consumers and for the planet.
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.
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