Last week, Steve Wasik, chief executive officer of SIGG Switzerland, made an astonishing admission: the company's aluminum water bottles manufactured before August 2008 had been made with epoxy resin that contains bisphenol A (BPA).
"The primary reason that I am writing this letter today is because I believe that the BPA conversation has changed dramatically in the last 12 months," Wasik said in a "bulletin" posted on the SIGG website. "Last year, the primary concern was that of BPA leaching from bottles. Since that time the dialogue has evolved such that now some people are concerned about the mere presence of BPA and some states are considering legislation."
Which sounds a lot like -- Oh, that BPA.
Wasik's disclosure marks a stunning about-face. Back in March 2007, as other bottle makers were struggling to cope with the burgeoning furor over their use of plastics based on BPA, a synthetic sex hormone, Wasik posted a statement on the company website asserting, "We understand the controversy and concern surrounding BPA leaching from plastic water bottles and can assure you that SIGG bottles are leach-free and 100% safe."
It's hard to see Wasik's posture as anything but cynical. To be fair, he didn't say point blank that SIGG bottles contained no BPA. He said they didn't leach BPA. He decided, on his own authority, that consumers didn't want or need to know more.
And if others failed to parse his artfully worded statements, he didn't bother to correct them. His March 2007 reassurance to customers quoted an email from a consumer advocacy group that said, in part, "SIGG bottles do not contain BPAs."
Around the same time, a SIGG public relations representative engaged in a heated dialogue with Environmental Working Group over the nature of SIGG's liner wrote in an email that the company was seeking to "assure dealers, press and consumers that come to us asking questions that there is no BpA in SIGG products."
Maybe the PR man didn't know the facts. But Steve Wasik did. And he didn't set the record straight.
The mistaken perception that SIGG bottles were BPA-free very likely boosted the company's position in the growing reusable bottle market. Wasik, profiled by Fortune/Small Business Magazine as a "marketing whiz," joined the Swiss company in 2005 and promptly launched a high-profile advertising campaign touting the company's committment to the environment and featuring eco-stars Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts. Wasik's strategy paid off: in November 2007, Advertising Age reported that SIGG sales had spiked 250 percent between 2006 and 2007 and that U.S. outlets selling SIGG wares had multiplied from 400 to more than 1,300.
Not surprisingly, many consumers who bought SIGG bottles because they thought they could avoid dosing themselves and their families with BPA, which scientists have shown to disrupt the endocrine system and trigger a range of serious conditions, are now expressing outrage.
What's the difference between drinking from a metal bottle with a plastic liner and a plastic bottle?
As far as we're concerned - none.
To add insult to injury, in last week's bulletin, Wasik informed consumers that he foresaw the BPA firestorm as early as mid-2006 and set out to develop a non-BPA alternative:
We recognized early that there were questions surrounding BPA and we wanted to be sure that we had a bottle liner that you, our customers, could have absolute confidence in. After two years of comprehensive testing and development and a one million dollar investment in new equipment for our Swiss factory, SIGG began producing bottles with our new, next generation "EcoCare" liner in August 2008.
"EcoCare," he went on to say, is a "special powder-based co-polyester liner certified to be 100% BPA and Phthalate Free."
Notice that he didn't say what's actually in EcoCare. That remains a mystery, just as the nature of SIGG's pre-August 2008 lining was suspected but unconfirmed -- until last week.
SIGG vs EWG
SIGG's campaign to disassociate itself from BPA involved EWG. Back in March 2007, Wasik and his aides challenged an EWG report said that "many metal water bottles, such as those sold by the brand Sigg, are lined with a plastic coating that contains BPA."
As it turned out, EWG's information was right on the money. But within a day after EWG's report went online, SIGG threatened to sue EWG for "damaging its brand reputation."
Wasik demanded a letter that EWG had "no knowledge or information that SIGG bottles pose any kind of health risk." The company refused to provide data to support this statement, so we politely declined.
However, since we had decided not to name the brands of canned food we had tested for BPA contamination, we removed SIGG's brand name from our consumer guide on how to avoid BPA exposure.
Wasik posted his own statement on the SIGG website attacking EWG's report. He added:
SIGG bottles are in fact lined with a proprietary non-toxic, water-based resin which has been refined over decades of study and is extremely safe & stable.... SIGG bottles have been thoroughly tested in Europe to ensure 0% leaching of any substance - no trace of BPA, BPB or any phthalates...We are upset about the misinformation which has circulated and are working feverishly to clear the good name of SIGG.
Wasik even disputed EWG's description of SIGG's bottle liner as "plastic." It's hard to understand why. Plastic is a generic term that encompasses a wide variety of flexible man-made materials. The "Facts on Plastic" website of the American Chemistry Council, the Washington-based lobby for the chemical and plastics industries, goes into great detail about epoxy resin, popularized during the Eisenhower era. In the same vein, the Society of the Plastics Industry website lists "epoxy" among a number of "plastic resins" whose makers and users are represented by the trade association.
Wasik's blustery description of the unnamed "resin" in SIGG bottles now seems a disingenuous distraction. As his recent bulletin, also carefully crafted, makes plain, the stuff was nothing more nor less than epoxy resin, whose "key building block," according to the American Chemistry Council, is BPA.
For many consumers, the question has transcended the issue of BPA.
It's, can you trust this company?