Blue Vinyl, Red Alert

By Jacquelyn Ottman

In Business, March/April 2003

Early in the documentary "Blue Vinyl," filmmaker and on-screen narrator Judith Helfand utters the condemning words, "My father's answer to rotting wood was looking more and more like someone else's toxic hazard." The film, which toured the film festival circuit last year and aired on HBO, chronicles Helfand's investigation of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) after her parents re-covered their Long Island house with-you guessed it-blue vinyl. While funny episodes portray Helfand's arguments with her parents about the siding, widows of cancer victims show another side of the story, and in-your-face criticism asks consumers to think twice about the many vinyl products they use every day. Filled with "Gen-X" attitude and personal bias, "Blue Vinyl" joins a number of other persuasive grassroots efforts against product manufacturers, including SUVs, tobacco, and fur that send a "red alert" to manufacturers of all consumer products that could be the target of this kind of criticism.

Avoid risk by bring pro-active in addressing environmental issues. Turn looming risks into opportunities to gain market share and win over stakeholders by following these principles: be transparent, take responsibility for life cycle impacts, and help consumers make the right choices.

Be Transparent.

Helfand meets for a closely monitored interview with a representative of the Vinyl Institute, being sure to bring extra cameras to "film them filming us." Eschewing the stereotype of the stiff, defensive corporate spokesman, win over your own skeptics and detractors with brutal honesty. Patagonia's "Enviro Action" statement begins with the statement, "Everything we make pollutes," while The Body Shop's in-store informational materials describe the pros and cons of each product, reminding consumers that although ingredients may be biodegradable, for example, their packaging is not.

Take Responsibility.

Products made with PVC can be harmful when burned or landfilled. Vinyl can be recycled, but according to the Vinyl Institute's own published research, only 2% of recycled vinyl comes from post-consumer sources. As suggested by Helfand and her parents' struggle to dispose of their vinyl siding safely, the vinyl industry is missing out on a huge opportunity to reclaim its own material from consumers, reducing risk and cutting source material costs.

In the late 1980s, after their first one-time use camera, the Fling, was called "an environmental offense" by Greenpeace, Eastman-Kodak redesigned their camera bodies for take-back and recycling each year. The program has achieved a 70% participation rate and now saves the company millions of dollars. Xerox and Electrolux now leases it copiers. Consumers pay only for the number of copies produced, and copies are returned to the company for safe disposal or remanufacturing.

Help Consumers Make the Right Choices.

Helfand never finds a viable alternative to her parents' vinyl siding, one that would be affordable, fit their neighborhood's aesthetic, and provide less environmental liability, not to mention, as she says, being available at Home Depot. She does discover some alternatives, each with its own environmental and aesthetic benefits. Viewers are also sent to a web site, myhouseisyourhouse.org, for further information and education.

Industry leaders will contribute to sustainability by voluntarily educating their own consumers on such things as how to choose the version or model that best fits their needs, and how they can use their products responsibly.

Recognizing that the greatest impacts occur during the "in use" stage, Europe's A.I.S.E. trade association for soap and detergent manufacturers is running a successful "Washright" campaign educating consumers about how to reduce the environmental impacts of doing laundry. Participating companies can display a logo on detergent packages. The campaign staves off eventual European Commission mandates while providing manufacturers an image boost for helping consumers do the right thing.

The Envelope, Please.

"Blue Vinyl" didn't win an Oscar nomination, but we should all recognize it for teaching us about the potential for any product to be the target of investigation by consumer and activist groups. Voluntary actions by leading companies are far preferable to pressure from governments and film-savvy activists. Follow the right principles, and the rewards may not be as glamorous as an Oscar gown, but they will last much longer.

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Jacquelyn Ottman  is president of J. Ottman Consulting, Inc., a New York-based marketing consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses derive competitive advantage from eco-innovation and green marketing. She is the author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation, 2nd edition.

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