Fabric from Corn: Greenfleece or Greenwash?

The dramatic ads feature thought provoking tag lines such as "the seeds of a revolution are sometimes just that," and "unlike every other revolutionary product, this one won't change the world." Blanketing the outdoor equipment trade press over the last several months, the ads hype the biggest environmental breakthrough in fabrics since the creation of fleece from recycled plastic soda bottles.

The marketing blitz by Cargill Dow heralded the unveiling of a line of fabrics called "NatureWorks PLA" (polylactic acid), made entirely from corn. At first blush it seems like the sort of environmental wonder technology always promised.

Rather than spinning the fuzzy fabric from oil, NatureWorks uses the natural sugars in corn, an annually renewable crop. Cargill Dow boasts its invention is a virtually limitless, 'clean' product, free of the taint of the pollution and controversy of the oil industry.

Even more miraculous, the technology isn't limited to apparel. Cargill Dow has plans to further "green" the marketplace with a bewildering array of corn-based products including carpeting, wall panels, upholstery, interior furnishings, outdoor fabrics, as well as plastics like film around CDs and golf ball sleeves. These products are even environmentally friendly when finished -- PLA can be completely recycled in commercial compost facilities. All this from an engineering process that cuts fossil fuel use in half compared to traditional oil-based technologies. What could environmentalists possibly find wrong with these wonder products?

Behind the Hype

Missing from all the hype is the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn.

Missing from all the hype is the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow's corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering. The obvious implication: by creating massive non-food markers for genetically engineered (GE) products, Cargill and other biotech companies expect to do an end run around the global campaign to stop GE proliferation. They hope that by creating so many products with such an irresistible green appeal, any voices of concern will be drowned out by the sheer weight of the marketplace.

Of course, this isn't the story Cargill Dow wants you to hear. They'd rather you logged on to their relentlessly self congratulatory web site, which boasts that "Cargill Dow is launching an industrial revolution in which petroleum based products are replaced with annually renewable ones in other words, unlimited resources to replace limited ones."

"Reducing our environmental impact while at the same time producing a superior product is why our company exists," gushes the company website.

In fact, Cargill Dow exists to create new markets for the products of its parent companies. Cargill Dow is a stand-alone company created by two of the leaders bioengineering, Cargill Inc. and Dow Chemical. Minnesota-based Cargill is both the world's largest privately held company and the planet's largest producer of corn. In fact, it already controls about 60% of the corn market in India, despite higher prices for their GE corn seed. A study by the Dutch banking conglomerate, Rabobank, estimates the global market for hybridized and genetically engineered crops at $30 billion and anticipates that it will to $90 billion.

Cargill and Dow spun off the new company to take advantage of strategic strengths each had, namely biotechnology and advanced chemical processes, and the first outlet for their products was the environmentally friendly, health-oriented outdoor clothing industry.

Some PR Gaffs

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, they stumbled twice right out of the gate in their promotion of PLA as a "green" alternative to oil-based products. Their first SNAFU was trying to dupe the company they chose to market their material. Given that the outdoor apparel industry is always on the lookout for better/greener products, meant Cargill Dow could have their pick of companies to team up with. They chose Patagonia, based in Ventura, California.

"It seemed almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was."

-- Jil Zilligen, Patagonia

It seemed a natural fit: Patagonia is well known for a commitment to environmental sustainability, and as developer of green technologies. They jumped at the new technology and spent years working with Cargill Dow on its development. But the relationship eventually soured. As Jil Zilligen, Patagonia vice president for Environmental Affairs put it, "At first, we could barely contain our excitement about the promise of PLA, it seemed almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it was."

Patagonia bailed out of the project when executives found out that Cargill Dow couldn't -- or wouldn't -- guarantee a GE-free source of corn for the new fabrics. Currently about 30% of domestic corn is genetically engineered. But as Dan Dye, vice president of the North American Grain Group for Cargill Inc., points out keeping them separate is "neither practical nor economically viable" for the company.

So, despite the obvious production and marketing benefits of using PLA, Patagonia passed. "We have invested a significant amount of time, research, and even hope in PLA, explained Zillegen. After many difficult discussions she says the company decided that "using inadequately tested, genetically engineered organisms is not a solution to the environmental crisis."

Unfortunately for Cargill Dow, the clothing company didn't go quietly. At the outdoor retailer trade show where PLA was unveiled, Patagonia devoted two full pages of their catalogue and put up large billboards explaining why they weren't using the product.

At the same show, Cargill Dow was forced into an embarrassing about face, after they were caught implying an endorsement for their products from eco-group Greenpeace. In the weeks leading up to the unveiling, Cargill Dow PR executive Vicki Bausman brandished an article in a Greenpeace, UK magazine by Cargill Dow VP for Technology Dr. Pat Gruber extolling the virtue of PLA process, hinting that it was an implicit endorsement by the environmental group. After repeated questioning by reporters she admitted that Gruber never told Greenpeace, a long-time opponent of genetically engineered crops, that Cargill Dow intended to use GE corn as their source material.

Not surprisingly, when Greenpeace activists caught wind of Cargill Dow's plans, they were furious. "The proliferation of genetic pollution through these GE crops has the potential to be the greatest environmental disaster in history, and it is highly disingenuous to claim this is green when it uses GE corn," said Craig Culp of Greenpeace USA.

A Green Company?

Meanwhile corporate parent Cargill is attempting an image makeover as an eco-friendly business in the face of growing worldwide opposition to its genetically engineered products. In February executives unveiled a new corporate logo featuring a green leaf, and ads displaying a butterfly with the tag line "there's a new Cargill taking shape, " a move sure to make GE activists wince, since Monarch butterflies have been among the signature species impacted by GE pollen. Their TV ads feature young children standing outside in rain-drenched fields and in front of green-power windmills.

"Kellogg's has Franken-food, and Cargill Dow is now making Franken-fleece."

-- Craig Culp, Greenpeace

Most recently, Cargill quietly bankrolled a new "academic organization" in Thailand aimed at extolling the virtues of GE crops, according to the Bangkok Post. Activists, like Isabella Meister of Greenpeace, believe that the biotech giant chose Thailand because it is "the only country in the region that has formulated a clear policy about GMOs, such as a ban on the import and commercial plantation of GM seeds." While the new institute's director denies any ties to international biotechnology companies, her group's website admits it is funded by those same companies.

Back in the US, Cargill Dow presses ahead with their plans to create not just the raw material, but the finished product as well as a marketplace for their GE corn. While the potential benefits of this technology to reduce dependence on non-renewable sources is indeed enormous, it remains to be seen whether Cargill Dow will follow through on their promises to create non-GE sources for PLA such as straw. Until they do, critics of bio-engineered crops see no difference between PLA and the GE corn Kellogg's uses in its cereal. "Kellogg's has Franken-food, and Cargill Dow is now making Franken-fleece," explained Craig Culp of Greenpeace.

Still unanswered is the question of whether enough concern will be raised about PLA products, before they are so deeply entrenched in the marketplace that removing them becomes impossible.

Cargill Dow isn't waiting around to find out. On April 2nd, they announced the opening of a new $750 million factory, the largest producer of polylactic acid on the planet. Sprawling over sixteen acres of former cornfields in Blair, Nebraska, the massive facility can generate more than 300 million pounds of Natureworks PLA per year, using some 40,000 bushels of Cargill corn every day in the process.

Jil Zilligen excerpts appear in Patagonia, Inc. Fall-2001 catalog and are used with permission.

After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill, Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. He now works as a freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel.

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