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Responsible? Care?: As bad news mounts and polls head south, chemical companies spend millions on 'public perception'

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"It was not the original intent to go public with Responsible Care . . . [P]ublicity would damage the initiative by giving it a "public relations" flavor, obscuring its real concentration on improving industry performance. . . . It would be better to wait until we had quantifiable evidence of performance improvement to prove serious intent and commitment. . . . However events, and new advice, intervened."
- Chemical Manufacturers Association memo to industry executives, Dec. 10, 1990 (view entire document)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, public distrust and fear of the chemical industry was at an all-time high. The 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed 3,000 people, was followed nine months later by a potentially catastrophic release of pesticide from a Union Carbide plant in Institute, WV, and by explosions in 1990 and 1991 at two Texas chemical plants which killed a total of 27 workers. These and other accidents sparked aggressive and widespread community-based campaigns against toxic chemical exposure.

In the year preceding the 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, more than 400,000 Americans became new members of three leading national environmental groups. (view entire document) Grassroots anti-toxics groups were demanding, and in some cases winning, stricter controls on chemical emissions and operations. The movement for communities' right to know about chemical use and emissions had produced the federal Toxics Release Inventory and even stronger disclosure laws in California and New Jersey, and was gaining momentum in other states and nations.

Chemical companies were running scared.

The industry's own polls found that only 14 percent of Americans viewed chemical companies favorably. (view entire document) Only the tobacco industry was less trusted by the public. Industry leaders realized that opinion "was unlikely to improve unless direct action was taken." (view entire document) In the face of thousands of victims, increasing evidence of chemical health hazards, angry activists demanding answers, and the specter of tougher government regulations, the "direct action" taken by the industry was a campaign to improve its public image.

It was the chief executive of Union Carbide, struggling to contain the fallout from Bhopal, who convinced the Chemical Manufacturers Association in 1987 to adopt an image campaign modeled on one used by Canadian chemical companies. They called the program Responsible Care, with the mandatory service mark symbol and an accompanying "helping hand" logo, the use of which was carefully controlled by CMA. (view entire document)

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last updated: march.27.2009

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