Lessons from the Past

The pet industry can learn a lot from how the plastics industry mishandled its fight against dangerous activist propaganda.


Those of us old enough to remember the movie The Graduate know that during the 1950s and 1960s, the most important business you could be in was plastics. It was the age in which just about anything could be made from plastic—milk bottles, children’s toys and even automobile parts. There was no limit to what could be done. The industry flourished and grew at unprecedented rates.

But slowly, a growing group of people who identified themselves as environmentalists began to surface. They identified some potential risks with certain kinds of plastics—plastics could leach into foods if not handled correctly, for example. They began to coalesce and started to get the word out about their concerns. The industry ignored them as nothing more than insignificant background noise.

Then, the movement started to curry favor with the popular press, and environmentalists began to expand their concerns about plastics. For example, they said that plastics—plastic bags, in particular—were polluting landfills, even though all landfills have a non-permeable base of plastic lining to ensure that no corrosive or harmful agents can leach into soil or groundwater. Facts were not a barrier to many of these folks. The industry continued to ignore them, but some legislators and regulators were beginning to take notice. A number of local ordinances suddenly began to appear banning the use of plastic bags. Then this grew quickly to a ban of plastics in a wide array of areas.

At this point, some companies were feeling the impact of environmentalists’ efforts and began to take notice. They tried to issue statements on a company-by-company basis, to no avail. Individual legislative committees within the plastics industry had little or no effect. Associations like the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association (now the Chemical Specialties Products Association) and the Society of the Plastics Industry and the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA) fought valiantly—each one alone—with little or no success. Others did the same, with the same result.

Finally, as bans on plastics proliferated and the public’s opinion of manufacturers and retailers was at an all-time low, the industry finally made an effort to come together. Under the initial efforts of the very large CMA, a group of senior executives and associations in the industry met in Washington. I was one of those folks, representing Union Carbide. We all sat in a room and looked at each other and had no idea what to do. Many still thought the situation would pass and everything would be fine. No way.

Over the next months, this group of industry members continued to meet and grew in size. It eventually became the American Plastics Council. It soon became obvious that the industry had waited so long to respond to all of the negative press that merely issuing press releases about what good guys we were was not going to make a dent in the negative tide. It took an initial budget of over $20 million in the first year alone to stop some of the bleeding. Massive PR campaigns were devised and executed to combat some of the misinformation already accepted as fact by the public. Over the years, the budget grew and the messaging became more targeted and fact-based.

Today, the plastics industry is doing very well making safer cars, heart valves that save lives and much more. And now thanks to the efforts of this joint council (currently known as the American Chemical Council) the public, as well as legislators and regulators, all know it and believe it.

Does any of this sound eerily similar to what is happening to the pet industry today? Activists say that our sources of pets are suspect. We spend too much on our pets for no good purpose; the industry doesn’t care and is only in it for the money. It goes on and on and on. Our detractors are doing a great job of painting a picture of us and our industry on their own terms. Facts be damned.

Fortunately, pets are a little different than plastic. There is more of an emotional bond that has helped us avoid—so far—the mushrooming negatives that plastics encountered. But it is happening, albeit slower.

And we are smarter. We have already begun to put together our own version of the American Plastics Council to begin to fight back. The Pet Leadership Council is involving a growing number of concerned associations and companies willing to put aside parochial concerns in order to step back, look at the bigger picture of the industry as a whole and develop and fund meaningful initiatives and proactive campaigns to set the record straight. The goal is to stop our opposition from defining who we are and what we stand for.

I applaud everyone willing to join this effort now, when there is still time to make the difference this industry needs for a lot less cost. Thank you for caring.

Bob Vetere is president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association.

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