Trade Associations: The Good News & The Same Old Story

Bill Walsh | June 01, 2004 | Policies

The Environmental Building News reports that the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) board of directors voted "not to create a new membership category for trade associations" while at the same time voting "to increase the dialog with trade associations to better understand issues of concern to them and demonstrate that the Council is neither a closed nor a restrictive organization."[1] That's good news for the green building movement and USGBC members.

The rationale for the decision to exclude trade association membership is as encouraging as the result. USGBC leadership had signaled support for the trade associations' membership bid. But grassroots members -- architects, designers, builders -- speaking through their chapters, overwhelmingly rejected the idea.[2]

The regrettable nature of the decision to "increase the dialog with trade associations" -- whose members already have an unmediated dialog with the USGBC leadership -- was underscored on May 24, 2004 when the Chicago Tribune published a letter to the editor from Vinyl Institute President, Tim Burns. Burns kicked up a fuss about a May 4th op-ed by Dr. Sandra Steingraber[3], but ended up with his foot in his mouth when he claimed vinyl is "the material of choice for blood bags and medical tubing."[4] That very day, the widely read industry trade journal Plastic News wrote about "hospitals in Philadelphia phasing out PVC because of concern about phthalates."[5] And it's not just Philly.[6]

The letter also included this howler: "The industry, including Formosa, has a long, excellent safety record and is committed to do whatever is necessary to maintain the safety of the dedicated men and women working in our plants and the people living in our communities."

In truth, the vinyl industry's record, including Formosa's, is dismal and deadly. The vinyl industry has been assessed millions of dollars for environmental violations; Formosa alone had to pay 4.3 million dollars in 2002 at just one facility in Baton Rouge.[7] According to 2001 data compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly 750,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen, was released into the environment.[8] And in February of this year, the USGBC's PVC Task Group received evidence that vinyl plants emit quantities of vinyl chloride into communities even larger than what they report to the EPA, a fact the Vinyl Institute withheld from the USGBC.[9]

Withholding information is part of the vinyl industry's record too. For twenty years, vinyl manufacturers coordinated their efforts to withhold from workers, communities, and the general public evidence of vinyl chloride's extreme toxicity.[10]

For the moment we can celebrate the decision to deny trade association membership as an indicator that democracy and transparency are ascendant at the USGBC. The shadow of increased "dialog" with trade associations reminds us however, that industrial polluters view the USGBC as a top greenwashing priority.


[1] Building Green Bulletin #41, May 20, 2004. Readers can sign up for the free e-mail BuildingGreen Bulletin at

[2] A Matter of Trust: USGBC Grapples With Trade Association Challenge,

[3] Sandra Steingraber, "Illiopolis: Center of Disaster and Environmental Hazard," Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2004

[4] Tim Burns, "Defending Plastics," Commentary, Chicago Tribune, May 24, 2004, p.20.

[5] Steve Toloken, "Environmental concerns now more personal," Plastics News, May 24, 2004.

[6] Health Care Without Harm,

[7] "Formosa Plastics to Spend $4.3 Million to Resolve Environmental Violations," Chemical Market Reporter, October 21, 2002.

[8] Environmental Protection Agency, Toxic Release Data 2001.

[9] Wilma Subra, Environmental Impacts In Communities Adjacent To PVC Production Facilities, February, 2004

[10] See Trade Secrets: A Bill Moyer's Report,

see also The Chemical Industry Archives: See also, FORMOSA PLASTICS: A Briefing Paper on Waste, Safety and Financial Issues available at