ENVIRONMENT

A divisive alliance

The controversy over product endorsements

July 17 1989
ENVIRONMENT

A divisive alliance

The controversy over product endorsements

July 17 1989

A divisive alliance

ENVIRONMENT

The controversy over product endorsements

During the past two decades, Torontobased Pollution Probe has gained public prominence by waging tough battles against companies and governments for allowing pollution of the environment. For that reason, some supporters of Pollution Probe

Foundation and the Ottawa-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth were stunned in June when the two nonprofit organizations—in return for royalty payments—publicly endorsed some items in Loblaw International Merchants’ new line of so-called Green,

or “environmentally friendly,” products. The endorsements set off a controversy at Pollution Probe that last week led, in part, to the resignation of Colin Isaacs, the organization’s executive director for the past seven years. Isaacs insisted that he saw nothing wrong with a limited alliance between his organization and the supermarket chain. “A lot of people have the perception that business is still the enemy,” said Isaacs, adding that in the drive to clean up the environment, “it’s absolutely essential to mobilize all sectors of society— government, business and the public.”

The controversy erupted after Pollution Probe agreed to endorse seven of Loblaw’s 100 new Green products, including a commercial topsoil, an organic fertilizer, disposable diapers made without chlorine bleach and a phosphate-free detergent. Two products—an organic rose food and baking soda that Loblaw promotes as an alternative to household cleansers—were recommended by Friends of the Earth. In return, the organizations were to receive royalties of as much as one per cent of every item sold—a fee that Loblaw estimated could yield about $75,000 in the next year for Pollution Probe and about $3,000 for Friends of the Earth.

The debate among environmentalists over the controversial endorsements intensified when critics claimed that one of the products included in Loblaw’s Green line contained dangerous substances. Michael Manolson, director of Toronto-based Greenpeace Canada, told reporters last week that Loblaw should remove the Green label from the fertilizer because it contained potentially toxic chemicals. Manolson said that tests carried out by an independent Niagara Falls, N.Y., laboratory showed that the fertilizer contained high levels of extractable organic halides. Those chemicals, including fluorides, chlorides and bromides, are found in the waste runoff from pulp and paper mills. In response, Loblaw’s president David Nichol said: “Greenpeace has only established halides are there—only that the fertilizer is potentially toxic. Greenpeace’s tests prove nothing.”

At the same time, the controversy focused attention on the fact that both Pollution Probe and Friends of the Earth—despite their frequent campaigns against industrial polluters— regularly accept financial contributions from corporations. In 1988, seven per cent of Pollution Probe’s $ 1.4-million budget and one per cent of Friends of the Earth’s $460,000 budget were from corporate contributions. Said Kai Millyard, policy director for Friends of the Earth: “It’s not like we have historically done nothing but fight with industry.”

Officials at Pollution Probe and Friends of the Earth said that they debated the idea of commercial endorsements but ultimately resolved it in the interest of public education. Still, Millyard expressed concern that the plan had backfired. “An idea that has a lot of merit—consumer education—may now have been spoiled by doing it sloppily,” said Millyard. “We may have already ruined the public trust.” As a result, officials at Friends of the Earth said that they were considering cancelling their deal with Loblaw. □