Wrote this for MediaPost after learning about the SIGG scandal.
Steve Wasik, the CEO of SIGG, has not been tweeting much lately. Caught in a scandal over the company’s delay in disclosing the presence of BPA in its bottles made before September 2008, Wasik has been speaking to bloggers and angry consumers on a one-to-one basis. As one of those once-proud SIGG-toting fans, I had the chance to speak with Wasik personally because I wanted to know how and why this happened to a company that had such devoted advocates among the green community.
Steve Wasik is the first to tell you that he’s an accidental environmentalist. A U.S.-born Kellogg grad, he told me, “Prior to my joining the company, I did not have a lot of experience with the green movement. I’m still learning.” Wasik is deeply sorry for delaying the news about BPA in the bottles. As he stated on the company’s in his column for the Huffington Post, “We were right to make the announcement. But I was wrong to have waited this long.”
What did green mean to SIGG, and how has that changed? Originally, SIGG saw itself as a steward of the environment, committed to providing a product that eliminated the need for wasteful disposable plastic bottles, keeping them out of landfill. SIGG had been monitoring the BPA discussions, and as a Swiss company, SIGG claimed high standards for internal testing. To this day, Wasik insists that the now infamous BPA-laden bottles are safe, and do not leach.
While it’s frustrating to learn about the presence of BPA in SIGG bottles, I wanted to know, what is so great about BPA — why bother to use it in the first place if there is a potential health risk. “BPA is the building block of packaging,” Wasik explained. “It is an anti-corrosive agent, which is critical for long-term storage of liquids, and is prevalent in most packaging,” from the lining of tin cans to plastic beverage bottles. It is still only outlawed in baby bottles in Canada, and in a handful of products in U.S. states and municipalities. BPA is still everywhere, and most governments still consider it safe. Yet, the green movement was always ahead of regulators, with an increasing sense of alarm that BPA is a potential cancer-causing agent and hormone disruptor.
So if SIGG was becoming aware of BPA as a marketing risk, why not simply come clean and disclose it publicly, let consumers be the judge? According to Wasik, SIGG’s bottle lining supplier was “in an agreement not to discuss these ingredients.” SIGG manufactures 95% of its products in house, but it depends on external suppliers for its liners. The supplier was highly protective of the exact ingredients list, and refused SIGG the right to disclose how their products were made. When asked, SIGG maintained that the liner chemistry was proprietary, and would remain so in an attempt to keep copy-cats at bay.
But Wasik was concerned enough to initiate the process of developing a non-BPA-based liner with another supplier as early as 2006, recently launched as “EcoCare,” a “special powder-based co-polyester liner certified to be 100% BPA- and phthalate-free.” When we asked if the new supplier allows ingredients to be disclosed, Wasik tells us that this will happen soon, that SIGG will demand this. To date, however, the company has not disclosed the full ingredient list.
This leads us to Wasik’s No. 1 recommendation for companies seeking green credentials: “Be transparent. Be as transparent as you can be.” While SIGG was trying to be green, the concept had taken on a whole new meaning. In the mind of SIGG’s fans, the benefit shifted from keeping disposable bottles out of landfill to protecting the health of themselves and their families.
The green movement made the SIGG brand through conversations in local mommy groups, community gardens, and charity walks. But the movement is also energized by a public discussion online, as consumers are able to now directly converse with NGOs, activists, scientists, and bloggers who are defining an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what it means to be environmentally good.
How do you avoid your own SIGG scandal? Yes, be open, back up your claims with data and full ingredient lists, but also listen carefully to how the dialogue is being shaped through networked conversations. The biggest lesson here is that the green movement owns what it means to be green.