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Paper focuses on chemicals' image

A 10-year-old program developed by the chemical industry to improve its public image and environmental performance is not working, in part because it sets no performance standards and otherwise makes no promises, according to an MIT researcher who presented a paper on the program at the MIT Forum on Chemicals and Society in June.

John R. Ehrenfeld, director of the MIT Technology, Business and Environment Program (TBE), emphasized, however, that the industry program is still an important development. In his talk, he gave suggestions for how the program could be strengthened.

Later, a community activist who lives near seven chemical companies, a representative from the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), and an EPA administrator responded to the paper in a panel discussion. One outcome: Richard Doyle of the CMA invited Dr. Ehrenfeld to share the proceedings of the session with the 16 CEOs who are currently reviewing the program in question.

"The chemical industry rates very low in measures of public perceptions, down there with the tobacco industry," said Dr. Ehrenfeld, co-author of the paper with TBE's Jennifer H. Nash. Enter the Responsible Care program, a set of principles and practices developed by the industry to address its poor public image and improve environmental performance.

But Responsible Care isn't working. "Even the industry recognizes that little has [changed]," said Dr. Ehrenfeld. Reasons for its ineffectiveness include the great variability in how companies have implemented the program. "The public will go to the bottom. It will look at those [companies] that are doing the least and generalize to the industry as a whole," Dr. Ehrenfeld said.

To make Responsible Care more effective, he and Dr. Nash came up with a number of suggestions. These include setting performance standards for the industry and giving the public direct information about the results of proposed actions. "I think it's very hard for the public to see what Responsible Care does," Dr. Ehrenfeld said.

He also noted that socially appropriate decisions about chemicals cannot rely on facts alone. Both Florence T. Robinson, an activist with the North Ba-ton Rouge Environmental Association, and Daniel Fiorino, director of the EPA's Emerging Strategies Division, agreed.

"The future of environmental protection in this country and elsewhere lies more in social, cooperative, and conceptual areas than it does in science," Dr. Fiorino said. Said Mrs. Robinson: "It is unfortunate that the CMA tends not to acknowledge this."

Mrs. Robinson also said that public perception is based on performance, noting that "the poor performance of industry is duly reported by people like [me], and we have very, very big mouths��������������������������� If you want to silence us, you've got to be good. You've got to do your job right."

Both Drs. Ehrenfeld and Fiorino stressed that, for all its problems, Responsible Care is an important development in industry. That's because, among other things, it comes from the industry itself, it enlists the industry in the reinforcement of good practices, and it builds in measures for getting feedback from the public, said Dr. Fiorino.

For example, the team responsible for reviewing companies' implementation of Responsible Care includes technical experts as well as representatives from the public. Last year CMA identified 32 companies "who appeared to be struggling [with Responsible Care]," Dr. Doyle said. CMA tried to help them, and although a few left the association, "we saw monumental changes in others."

Dr. Doyle also noted that Responsible Care, which began in Canada, has spread to 40 nations around the world. "Is it perfect? No," he said. "But we feel it's a step in the right direction."

The Forum on Chemicals and Society featured sessions on the roots of pub-lic concerns about chemicals and sharing responsibility for chemical testing in addition to that on Responsible Care. Each session included a paper presented on the topic, stakeholder responses to the paper (a panel discussion), and afternoon workshops to develop recommendations related to each topic.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 15, 1998.

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