Dow Chemical's Biotech Greenwash

For eco-sensitive consumers, a whole new series of moral shopping dilemmas is about to hit the marketplace, raising difficult questions with no easy answers about just what makes a product ‘green.’ The confusion starts with a simple bushel of corn.

Last year a Minnesota-based biotech company, Cargill Dow, unveiled their groundbreaking fleece material called Natureworks, which at first blush seemed to be the environmental wunderkind technology always promised.

Rather than spinning the fuzzy fabric from oil, Natureworks uses the natural sugars in corn to create a base material similar to plastic. The result is an annually renewable "green" product, free of the taint of the pollution and controversy of the oil industry. It’s also a better product: the corn fabric is as warm as regular fleece, less likely to retain odors and less likely to burn.

Even better, the technology isn't limited to apparel. Cargill Dow has plans to further "green" the marketplace with a bewildering array of corn-based products including carpeting, wall panels, upholstery, interior furnishings, outdoor fabrics, as well as plastics like film around CDs and golf ball sleeves. In June, the company announced a deal with Bed Bath and Beyond to produce a line of "Natural Balance" pillows, comforters and mattress pads filled with Natureworks, and also unveiled new packaging that would utilize Natureworks for milk cartons.

It’s even solving the problem of flooding in Taiwan, and what to do with old computers and Walkmen. Just last month, a deal was announced to use Natureworks plastic bags to replace oil based ones in Taiwan. The old models were recently banned because of overflowing landfills and disposal tunnels backing up and flooding due to blockages from the some 16 million bags discarded there daily. No such worries with PLA bags; one you’re finished with it, PLA can be completely recycled in commercial compost facilities. That’s exactly what will happen to new Fujitsu Biblo Laptops and Sony Walkmen -- their cases are set to be made from biodegradable corn based polymers sometime in 2004.

All this from an engineering process that uses half the amount of fossil fuels used in traditional oil-based technologies. In recognition of its achievements, the company received the 2002 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge, Alternative Reaction Conditions Award. The award, given by the Environmental Protection Agency, recognizes companies that reduce or eliminate the need for hazardous materials in manufacturing.

So what would cause environmentalists to raise concerns over the proliferation of these wonder products? In a word, plenty. Missing entirely from Cargill Dow’s press materials is any acknowledgement of the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow's corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering.

That’s a potentially huge problem, since millions of consumers around the world and several governments have rejected the use of genetically engineered (GE) products, because of the unforeseen consequences of unleashing genetically altered organisms into nature. Before the development of Natureworks, GE materials have been used almost exclusively in food, which have drawn well-organized opposition campaigns; recently Zambia made headlines for turning down an offer of 10,000 pounds of rice from the United States because it was GE.

But with PLA, Cargill Dow may be able to do an end run around the global campaign to stop GE proliferation. By creating so many products with such an irresistible green appeal, voices of concern may be drowned out by the sheer weight of the marketplace. As John Ohman, Cargill Dow’s Director of Sleep Products, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in an unintentional double entendre, "This is just the beachhead for a whole new way of doing things."

Of course, this isn't the story Cargill Dow wants consumers to hear. It would rather they logged on to its Web site which boasts that, "Cargill Dow is launching an industrial revolution in which petroleum-based products are replaced with annually renewable ones, in other words, unlimited resources to replace limited ones. Reducing our environmental impact while at the same time producing a superior product is why our company exists."

In fact, Cargill Dow exists to create new markets for the products of its parent companies. Cargill Dow is a stand-alone company created by two leaders in bioengineering, Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical. Cargill is both the world's largest privately held company and the planet's largest producer of corn. Already Cargill controls about 60 percent of the corn market in India, despite higher prices for its GE corn seed. A study by the Dutch banking conglomerate Rabobank estimates the global market for hybridized and genetically engineered crops at $30 billion and anticipates that it will grow to $90 billion.

Cargill and Dow spun off the new company to take advantage of the strategic strengths of each, namely biotechnology and advanced chemical processes. The first outlet for Cargill/Dow’s products was the environmentally friendly, health-oriented, outdoor clothing industry.

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, it stumbled twice right out of the gate in its promotion of PLA as a "green" alternative to oil-based products. Its first slip-up was when it tried to partner with a "green" leader in the outdoor industry, Patagonia, based in Ventura, Calif.

It seemed a natural fit: Patagonia is well known for its commitment to environmental sustainability and a developer of green technologies. The company jumped at the new technology and spent years working with Cargill Dow on its development. But the relationship eventually soured. As Jil Zillegen, Patagonia Vice President for Environmental Affairs later wrote in the company catalogue, "At first, we could barely contain our excitement about the promise of PLA, it seemed almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was."

Patagonia bailed out of the project when executives discovered that Cargill Dow couldn't -- or wouldn't -- guarantee a GE-free source of corn for the new fabrics. Currently about 30 percent of domestic corn is genetically engineered. But as Dan Dye, vice president of the North American Grain Group, for Cargill says, keeping the two types of corn separate is "neither practical nor economically viable."

Dye’s point is a valid one: the market for non-GE corn is so tiny, and the general market so massive, separating them in just one factory would be prohibitively expensive. Further, since the goal of Cargill Dow is to make PLA cost competitive with petroleum-based materials, any additional costs might price the products out of the market.

So despite the obvious production and marketing benefits of using PLA, Patagonia passed. "We have invested a significant amount of time, research, and even hope in PLA," explained Zillegen. "After many difficult discussions," the company decided, "using inadequately tested, genetically engineered organisms is not a solution to the environmental crisis."

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, the clothing company didn't slip away quietly. At the trade show where PLA was unveiled, Patagonia devoted two full pages of its catalogue and put up large billboards explaining why it wasn’t using the product.

At the same show, Cargill Dow was forced into an embarrassing about-face after it was caught implying it had an endorsement for its products from eco-group Greenpeace. In the weeks leading up to the unveiling, Cargill Dow PR executive Vicki Bausman brandished an article published in Greenpeace UK by Cargill Dow VP for Technology Dr. Pat Gruber in front of the media. After repeated questioning, she admitted that Gruber never told Greenpeace, a long-time opponent of genetically engineered crops, that Cargill Dow intended to use GE corn as their source material.

Not surprisingly, when Greenpeace activists caught wind of Cargill Dow's plans, they were furious. "The proliferation of genetic pollution through these GE crops has the potential to be the greatest environmental disaster in history, and it is highly disingenuous to claim this is green when it uses GE corn," said Craig Culp of Greenpeace USA.

For anti-GE activists, it’s an open question whether enough concern will be raised about PLA products to limit their spread before they are so deeply entrenched in the marketplace that removing them becomes impossible. Cargill Dow isn't waiting around to find out. In April of this year, it announced the opening of a new $750 million factory, the largest producer of polylactic acid on the planet. Sprawling over 16 acres of former cornfields in Blair, Neb., the massive facility can generate more than 300 million pounds of Natureworks PLA per year, using some 40,000 bushels of Cargill corn daily. Like it, love it, or hate it, "green" fleece, and just about everything else, is coming soon to a store near you.

Which raises the question of how will consumers react faced with a choice between drilling for oil or dividing DNA? Is oil-free the way to be, or is genetic engineering the greatest concern? They may not have to decide: Cargill Dow says they’re working on plans to create processes for using non-GE sources for PLA, such as straw. But until they do, critics of bio-engineered crops see no difference between PLA and the GE corn Kellogg's uses in its cereal. "Kellogg's has Franken-food," quipped Culp, "and Cargill Dow is now making Franken-fleece."

After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill, Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. Based from there, he now works as a freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel. An earlier version of this article first appeared on Jil Zilligen excerpts appear in Patagonia, Inc. Fall 2001 catalog and are used with permission.


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