TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Some Sierra Club chapters are crying foul, and officers in northern Michigan even quit, after the venerable environmental group signed up with a new partner: The Clorox Co.
Better known for suing corporations than forging alliances with them, the Sierra Club this year agreed to promote a new line of eco-friendly Clorox products in exchange for a share of the profits.
"They sold their soul to the highest bidder," said Monica Evans, who helped reactivate the club's nine-county Traverse Group in 2000. She and the group's other five executive committee members resigned in May but only recently made their decision public.
The walkout highlights the passionate debate among members of the Sierra Club over the partnership with Clorox, named one of a "dangerous dozen" chemical companies by the Public Interest Research Group in 2004. PIRG contended in the report that Clorox's handling of chemicals at U.S. production facilities left some 14 million people vulnerable to contamination in the case of an accidental release.
"The Sierra Club has been fighting against Clorox for decades, trying to get them to be responsible," Evans said. "Now we're partners with them? It doesn't make any sense."
Partner terms not disclosed
The Sierra Club says it won't disclose how much money it will get from the sale of Clorox's "Green Works" cleansers, saying it has the same policy for all donations.
Clorox's first new product line in 20 years consists of five cleansers for bathrooms, toilets, glass, surfaces and other uses. They are made from natural ingredients such as coconuts and lemon oil, contain no phosphorus or bleach, are biodegradable and are not tested on animals.
Their packaging bottles are recyclable — and bear the Sierra Club's name and logo, a giant sequoia tree framed by mountain peaks.
The arrangement is the first of its type for the 116-year-old, San Francisco-based club, which has 1.3 million members and supporters, but it may not be the last.
"One of the Sierra Club's primary goals is to foster vibrant, healthy communities with clean water and air that are free from pollution," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in the press release issued by Clorox on Jan. 14. "Products like Green Works help to achieve this goal in the home. We're looking forward to working with Clorox and the Green Works team to promote a line of natural cleaning products for consumers who are moving toward a greener lifestyle."
With increasingly eco-savvy consumers demanding sustainable products and services, going green is good business. For some companies, a stamp of approval from a high-profile environmental group may become more valuable than a celebrity endorsement.
"Green is in," said Noah Hall, an environmental law professor at Wayne State University. "This is a very good time to be in the environmental protection business."
But Hall, who has represented the Sierra Club in court and also worked for the National Wildlife Federation, said he wasn't surprised that some club members would find the Clorox deal distasteful.
Critics say Clorox will continue to manufacture cleansers with toxins, primarily its signature household bleach. PIRG officials declined to comment on the arrangement, saying the authors of the 2004 report had left the group.
Group: Clorox 'among the best'
Sierra Club leaders said they carefully studied Clorox's environmental performance. Its manufacturing plants have generally good ratings, the group says on its Web site, and despite some minor recent violations and more serious ones in the 1990s, Clorox appears to be "among the best" in comparison to similar companies.
Clorox bleach consists mostly of water and a small amount of sodium hypochlorite — a relatively safe chemical for disinfection, the Web site says. When flushed down the drain, it's reduced to water and salt.
"We have a very good environmental record," said Aileen Zerrudo, spokeswoman for Clorox, based in Oakland, Calif. "We expected a backlash from some people. This is definitely an unorthodox partnership, but we feel strongly that it's the right thing to do."
Another sore point for critics is that Clorox is a newcomer to the green cleansers market. If the Sierra Club aligns with anyone, they say, it should be a smaller pioneer in the field such as Seventh Generation Inc. or Method Products Inc.
But their products aren't as widely available as Clorox's and are more expensive, club spokesman David Willett said. The goal is to make green cleansers as popular with Wal-Mart shoppers as with patrons of organic co-ops.
"That's the kind of scale that we really need across many industries to transform the American economy to one that's much more environmentally friendly," Willett said.
He said he knew of no resignations from the Sierra Club over the agreement except those in northern Michigan. But a number of state chapters, including those in Michigan, New York, Florida, New Jersey and Tennessee, have criticized the deal.
Is credibility diminished?
A resolution adopted in New York says that "endorsing a specific commercial product in exchange for a payment severely diminishes our conservation integrity and credibility."
Willett said the Clorox payments, like other donations, will help underwrite the club's programs and won't compromise its mission.
"It definitely will not curtail how we talk about the company and the folks at Clorox know that," he said. "My impression is that they welcome the honesty."
Partnerships between businesses and advocacy groups can be good for the planet and a company's bottom line, said Gwen Ruta, a vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund. Her organization's alliance with McDonald's in 1990 led the fast-food giant to eliminate styrofoam packaging.
But the Environmental Defense Fund accepts no donations from corporate partners. "Our credibility is paramount," Ruta said.
The Sierra Club explained its partnership online at www.sierraclub.org/greenworks/
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