Recently I read a great piece of journalism about the latest Johnson & Johnson scandal – the fact that their iconic talc-based Baby Powder may cause ovarian cancer. More than 1000 women are suing the company – not because it knew of the risk per se, but because for years and years, it didn’t inform women that there might be risks from using Baby Powder in the perineal area, keeping them in the dark while it (and the talc industry generally) fought the science and any regulation.
Cosmetic talc isn’t a big part of Imerys’s business. The company, formerly called Luzenac, primarily sells the mineral for industrial purposes. But until 2006, it also fought any suggestion that talc could be a potential carcinogen. In the late 1990s, according to a Luzenac memo introduced at the trial, executives visited the head of epidemiology at the University of California at Irvine for advice on how “to stop the rumor about Ovarian cancer.” One suggestion: Get “two or three experts from the club” to make the scientific case. “The club” could refer to independent scientists Luzenac had worked with before, but Fox’s lawyers argued for a more sinister interpretation—that these were scientists who would respond to industry pressure. They also suggested that Luzenac and J&J exerted influence over a government group. In 2000 scientists with the National Toxicology Program, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, voted 13-2 to list talc, used perineally, as a possible human carcinogen, according to Fox’s lawyers, but the companies persuaded the NTP to defer an official decision on the status of talc. A Luzenac executive, Richard Zazenski, wrote to a colleague afterward: “We, the talc industry, dodged a bullet in December, based entirely over the confusion of the definition issue.” He was referring to ambiguity over the composition of the talc studied because, until the early 1970s, some powder contained naturally occurring asbestos fibers. He also discussed a coming NTP review, saying, “Time to come up with more confusion!” Imerys declined to comment on the specifics of the trial, but one witness for the defense offered the possibility that Zazenski was joking. Goodrich, the J&J spokeswoman, said any suggestion by Fox’s lawyers of improper influence is “merely an unsubstantiated allegation.”
It’s this type of behavior that’s so outrageous, and sadly so common.
The original article goes into far more detail about the talc problems facing Johnson & Johnson, and it’s well worth a read. But it reminded me of this email I received (along with the rest of the staff) while I worked for the National Wildlife Federation in 2010:
We are pleased to announce a new partnership with Johnson & Johnson for the launch of the Johnson’s Naturals baby and child bath products.
It goes on:
As part of our agreement, NWF will:
• Receive a cash contribution
• Be featured in-store and on-package (in the second production run of the product)
• Appear in national advertisements and P.R. efforts
• Receive a significant ad space buy on www.babycenter.com. (BabyCenter is the #1 website for pregnant and newborn moms). We will use this advertising opportunity to promote our kids magazines and the Be Out There campaign.
• Be featured on a J&J’s new Outdoor Resource Center website with content co-produced by Johnson & Johnson and NWF’s very own Anne Keisman.
• As a result of our work with them over the last 18 months, Johnson’s Naturals has adopted a baby harp seal for employees and will be making a donation to the Gulf Coast Restoration Fund.
The total value of this partnership (cash, media and impressions) is more than $300,000 and provides a tremendous opportunity for NWF to reach and engage millions of young moms—an important target for the future growth of NWF.
At the time, this struck me as wrong. More so now. NWF has tied its brand and its credibility to the kind of company that (maybe) causes cancer and (definitely) behaves badly. As of this moment, it’s still touting its former relationship with Johnson & Johnson on its website:
In the past, environmental groups have made embarrassing mistakes. For instance, in the late 1990s, the Natural Resources Defense Council promoted electricity deregulation in California – a set of pro-market policies that invited abuse from companies like Enron, and led to rolling black-outs. This harmed NRDC’s reputation and credibility, but the lack of an obvious quid pro quo meant that NRDC played the fool, and not the villain. Environmental groups have also made progress by partnering with corporations. For instance, the Ecology Center and other environmental groups in Michigan partnered with Dow Chemical – their adversary in other battles – and helped the company identify ways to reduce toxic pollution that simultaneously saved the company millions of dollars. Their work reduced pollution, demonstrated more eco-friendly ways of doing business, and won positive media attention and acclaim (for instance, this article in The New York Times).
That is, you don’t need a quid pro quo in order to work with corporations or nudge their behavior in eco-friendly ways. Nor to benefit from successful efforts to do so. And the lack of a quid pro quo can insulate you from the negative outcomes of the policies you support, and the companies you affiliate with.
So why accept a quid pro quo? The money, of course.
If NWF hadn’t gotten all that value – the cash, the exposure – they still could have promoted the eco-friendly actions of Johnson & Johnson. And they would have done so with more credibility, because there wouldn’t be any doubts about the sincerity of NWF’s stance. Alternately, they may not have done so, because without all that value – the cash, the exposure – it may not have been worth it to promote Johnson & Johnson’s products. Either course would have been preferable to the one NWF chose – selling the credibility of their message and brand in exchange for cash from a company that (maybe) kills people.