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Junk science traditionally has been pretty much of an in-your-face phenomenon. Activist-generated scary headlines that are followed by a hysterical rush to adopt new laws and regulations is standard fare.
But that may be changing. Consider the more insidious and subtle tactics of the San Francisco-based As You Sow Foundation .
When it comes to health and environmental issues, As You Sow – whose slogan is “Planting Seeds for Social Change” – is clever. It doesn’t mire itself in time-consuming debate about whether scientific data indicate that particular consumer products may be harmful to health or the environment, or whether product benefits are outweighed by whatever risks they may entail.
Bypassing scientific controversy, As You Sow pretends as if no debate exists in targeting business prey that would rather quietly – and, ultimately, futilely – appease the group than risk attack.
When contacted for this column, a spokesperson for As You Sow denied that the group's efforts circumvent science, but one of As You Sow’s bread-and-butter tactics is the so-called “bounty hunter provision” of California’s Proposition 65, a law notoriously prone to scientific controversy. Proposition 65  requires that consumers be warned about consumer products that contain chemicals that California has decided (often arbitrarily) may cause cancer or reproductive toxicity.
The bounty hunter provision enables private citizens to sue companies to enforce Proposition 65. Not only do victorious plaintiffs get to recover attorneys’ fees and court costs, but they are entitled to 25 percent of any penalty assessed by the court.
Fears of adverse publicity and expense of such lawsuits compel some businesses to surrender to As You Sow, whose conquests, according to public records, have included: plumbing fixture manufacturers and jewelry manufacturers/retailers whose products may contain lead; the California Dental Association over mercury in dental amalgam; and portable classroom manufacturers over formaldehyde emissions.
No scientific evidence indicates these products have caused any harm and the settlements with As You Sow provide no benefit to public health or the environment – but that is irrelevant. By simply pretending otherwise, courtesy of Proposition 65, As You Sow has made junk science a reality and turned a pretty profit by doing so. Public records show that Proposition 65 reaped As You Sow $324,708 in 2004 (about 45 percent of its revenue) and $872,739 in 2003 (79 percent of its revenue).
Ironically, settling with As You Sow buys businesses little. Settlements typically involve businesses agreeing to be continuously monitored by As You Sow and the posting of As You-Sow-drafted warnings to scare customers. Rather than enduring a brief public relations battle, As You Sow’s targets sign-up for a permanent anti-business watchdog and perpetually frightened customers – not to mention aiding and abetting the advancement of As You Sow’s left-wing social agenda.
In addition to Proposition 65, As You Sow uses the federal securities laws to accomplish its agenda. As You Sow buys small amounts of stock in a number of companies in order to file shareholder resolutions that pressure corporate managements. Though these nuisance resolutions are always soundly defeated by shareholders, they make some CEOs wobbly-kneed.
In 2005, As You Sow filed a shareholder resolution on global warming with the financial services giant JPMorgan Chase & Co. In return for withdrawal of the resolution, the bank announced that it would lobby for global warming regulations. Though the CEO apparently thought that settling with As You Sow would make the controversy vanish, a shareholder group that I am affiliated with spotlighted the embarrassing capitulation at the bank’s annual meeting and forced the bank to reverse its position on global warming lobbying.
In 2006, As You Sow pressured Apple Computer via shareholder resolution about its supposedly “insensitive” recycling program. Though Apple CEO Steve Jobs disputed the allegations and the resolution was soundly defeated by Apple shareholders, the company nevertheless began kow-towing to environmental activists on the recycling issue. But Apple’s appeasement hasn’t bought it anything; As You Sow re-filed the same resolution for 2007.
As You Sow also filed a resolution to pressure cosmetic manufacturer Avon to stop using manmade ingredients in its products. Though the product ingredients are FDA-approved, As You Sow proceeded with its resolution as if the ingredients were untested and indisputably harmful. Needless to say, an overwhelming majority of shareholders (96 percent) voted against the resolution.
A similar theme is part of an As You Sow shareholder resolution filed with chemical giant Dupont in order to cast aspersions on biotechnology. Pretending as if biotechnology is some unregulated and haphazard Frankenstein-making process rather than the heavily regulated activity it actually is, As You Sow seeks to be come a new biotech regulator by demanding special biotech safety reports and assurances.
Despite their claims otherwise, As You Sow’s tactics are designed to circumvent the historical bane of environmental activism – scientific and economic debate. Its tactics work best against businesses that are hypersensitive about their brands being involved in any sort of controversy. But therein lies the solution to the problem.
The bark of an environmental activist group is often far worse than its bite. Many businesses have steeled themselves against junk science-fueled activists and have prevailed. The public is not likely to stop buying iPods, for example, because As You Sow arbitrarily disapproves of Apple’s recycling efforts.
Corporate managers should not allow themselves to be bullied and extorted by a small group of manipulative, ill-willed, and know-nothing activists. CEOs owe it to their shareholders, employees and customers to stand up to eco-intimidation. They should insist that environmental controversies be resolved with the actual facts rather than activist pretensions.