It happened a few years ago … I was attending the annual European Bioplastics conference on the 28 and 29th November 2017 in Berlin. Very often, I hang around the “exposition room” during the presentations: mingling, talking and networking. Suddenly, I saw the VP of a big chemical company, let’s call him Mr. White from company A. I thought: Interesting, he can help me turn my blog (bioplasticsnews.com) around by spending a small share of his advertising and marketing budget.
I told Mr. White that I started BioplasticsNews.com to increase awareness around bioplastics (biobased and biodegradable plastic) and that traffic was growing etc. During the discussion, his younger colleague (let’s call him Mr. Green) joined us but didn’t interrupt. He was listening carefully. They looked a bit like Batman and Robin. Finally, I had to ask the “question” to Mr. White: “Would you like to advertise on my blog?”
Mr. White answered: “Maybe, you could help us spread … publish … an article … a scientific work on your website … But nobody can know it came from us!” Mr. White added: “We will contact you. My colleague (pointing at Mr. Green) will contact you soon.”
Shortly after the conference, I send them an email to say thank you and looking forward to working together. I didn’t get any reply for a couple of weeks so I decided to call Mr. White in January 2018. He told me: “Mr. Green will contact you soon to fix a call! And indeed, Mr. Green send me an email on the 28th of January. Here’s the copy:
“Dear Axel, Thanks for your message. I would like to discuss with you the promotion of some of our studies in your blog. Are you available for a call next week? Kr, XXX Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards”
I replied by giving a few dates and he replied back:
“Hi Axel, As of February 1, I will take over other topics within our com team. I will first discuss with my successor and will come back to you asap. Sorry for the inconvenience! Kr, XXX Mit freundlichen Grüßen / Kind regards”
A few months passed by and I never heard from them again! Then one day, I witnessed something spectacular that I had never seen before in the bioplastics industry. The web was flooded with scientific articles regarding one specific type of bioplastic (let’s call it bioplastic Y) that was supposedly compostable under a specific condition (let’s call it condition Z). At least 10 scientific articles were published about this topic in one week time. A record. I remember thinking: these guys are champions. They know how to spread content on the internet.
I added my legendary “personal remarks” to one of those article; I think it was something like: I don’t believe Bioplastics Y is compostable under condition Z. I think it’s utter BS.
I didn’t make the link with Mr. White at that time as (1) the articles never mentioned any specific company, and (2) I didn’t know the company who employed Mr. White and Green were the producers of bioplastic Y. I knew the brand name but didn’t know the type of bioplastic. After I published the article with my personal remarks, the “web” flood stopped and no more articles were published on this topic!
A few months went by, until the next European Bioplastic Conference took place on the 4th and 5th December 2018 where I met Mr. White again. When he looked at me, he looked angry! So I went to talk to him. How are you? But he didn’t reply. Are you angry? I asked him. And then he exploded. He gave me a bust-up!
“How dare you write this. You will regret it! Nobody from the industry (pointing at the people in the exposition room ) will work with you anymore.”
It was a really nasty bust-up. I was bit surprised that someone from the industry dared to speak to someone from the “press” like this. Worse of all, I didn’t know which article he was referring to. I made a few guesses until I identified which article.
I felt bad about it and a bit intimated. I returned home after the event and did something I regretted afterwards: I removed my personal remarks from that article. Let me tell you: You shouldn’t change who you are or what you think because someone doesn’t like it. Especially in this case. He was in the wrong!
I think he pushed his promise through because it became hard for me to work with other members of European Bioplastics. Company A is the most powerful company in the sector; they’re like mother superior. They probably get other companies and politicians to play ball!
The following will be hard to proof and Company A should be given the benefit of the doubt … but here’s how I think they do it.
How does it work
Company A wants to proof that their product X or technology Y works perfectly under condition(s) Z.
Company A identifies several scientists or researchers, labs or centres that could be able to proof their point. It’s possible to buy science, scientists and data. It’s possible to buy anything today!
Some sciences such as statistics enables you to interpret the same data in different ways. You can use statistics to say almost anything you want.
Company A may not contact the scientists and researchers directly; they may use some kind of middle man such as a consultant, a consultancy, a business partner, a research institute, etc.
Let’s say, eventually, two or three (teams of) researchers are put on the task of testing product X or technology Y under condition(s) Z.
The scientist may even be briefed with: help us proof product X or technology Y works under conditions z; or identify under which conditions product X or technology Y works.
Company A may choose the scientific report(s) or analysis whose results are the most favourable to prove their product X or technology Y works under condition(s) Z. It’s a bit like science à la carte. They remove all unfavourable elements and keep the favourable elements.
Then comes the dissemination and distribution part. The science is brought to a wider public but nobody knows Company A is related to the study. Company A may not be mentioned in the study.
The research will be published in scientific journals and reviews. This allows other scientists to challenge or comment it. However, some topics are still considered as “niche” and not all researchers can start researching on whatever they want. They need funding that often comes from “corporate sources”.
We should not judge these researchers. Everyone wants to make a living and pay their bills. Researchers are passionate about their science and research. To exercise their passion, they accept funding from where they can get it.
Company A or a middle man hires journalists or editors to write an article about product X or technology Y that works under condition Z based on the science and data from the “scientific report”.
The results of the research will be showcased during conferences and events. It will be done through Company A employees and / or freelance experts. Company A is a very large sponsor of conferences (Gold, Silver, Platinum, Premium sponsor, etc)
Most news websites in the (bio)plastic sector are owned by conference organisers. Company A may forward the articles and scientific report to some conference organisers for publication on their website. Event organisers are not aware of the scheme, they just want to please a sponsor. When a sponsor of your conference asks you to publish an article, you do it.
Company A may even ask trade associations to publish the report on their websites. Company A pays membership fees to these trade associations.
Now, it get’s really interesting and clever. The whole “scientific orchestration” is also meant to influence potential corporate clients. That’s how, I think, it becomes a Ponzi scheme. Let me explain: Company A developed two business models:
(1) company owned brand: a product or technology they will commercialise and market under their own brand;
(2) white label/ licensing model: a product they sell as a white label and/or a technology they sell through a licensing contract.
Corporate clients of company A will (a) buy the white label products to market it under their own brand or (b) lease the technology (license) to produce the products themselves.
Once company A has two or three big clients in the “white label / licensing” model, they take a step back with their (a) scientific communication and (b) brand marketing; and let their corporate clients take over the (a) scientific communication (remember the research was published in scientific journals, news websites and trade association websites) and (b) “Branding of the white label”. The more products sold by corporate clients, the better the business for company A.
Another huge advantage of this model: when product X or technology Y is in the eye of the storm in terms of public opinion, company A lets their corporate clients deal with the shit storm because company A is now behind the scene.
What do I think of this?
It’s clever. I don’t think it’s illegal; it’s just immoral.
I don’t think company A invented or is the only one using this type of scheme. Cheating happens everywhere, but it’s usually around the financial aspects and balance sheets. Here, the cheating happens about the science: who ordered, who paid, cherry picking, dissemination, usage. The science was created and brought in a certain way to convince public opinion and stakeholders (including corporate clients) that product X or technology Y works under condition(s) z.
Not everyone involved is part of the Ponzi scheme. Not everyone sees the full picture. On or two top people at company A are aware of the whole ramifications.
CEOs are not stupid; they know these kind of practices exist. They weren’t born yesterday. The golden rule is … as long as you don’t get caught. A good CEO knows when to close his eyes and is smart enough not to ask too many questions.
Big companies (like company A) have to deliver results. Mr. White is probably also under pressure to deliver results. He has to reach his targets to receive his bonus. He has to pay his bills. That’s his personal motivation.
It becomes more unacceptable when that specific research was paid with EU funding or if company A received EU funding. This would be a huge scandal! Isn’t it?
Now starts the second act. Houdini reappears on the scene. I’m seeing Company A reproducing similar things in the chemical recycling sector.
What to do?
- Beware, there are cartels out there: price and market cartels but also communication, science and technology cartels.
- Don’t rely only upon one external source of knowledge (suppliers or experts). Try to internalise knowledge.
- Don’t trusts labels and scheme blindly, test it yourself. Get out on the field. Talk to people not related to “company A” or similar.
- Raise your questions and concerns publicly or in written.
- Don’t believe in miracle solutions that are too innovative.
- Be careful to be the first to walk the walk in terms of miracle technology.
- Understand where the product / technology comes from? Does your supplier owns the products or technology or is it a white label or licensing model? Who owns the technology? Who are the resellers? Why aren’t the owners selling it directly to you?
- When everyone agrees on everything all the time … that’s were you start to panic.
I will continue my quest to bring the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
- What Happens to Bioplastics at Industrial Composting Sites?
- Problems with Bioplastics
- Problems with Recycling