The Risk-Monger

My dinner with Axel

Last month at a trade association dinner, the Risk-Monger was seated at a table with Axel Singhofen, the adviser on health and environment for the Greens in the European Parliament and former toxics campaigner for Greenpeace’s European Unit. Axel spent a good part of the evening telling those around the table (twelve people, mostly directors from plastics companies) his stories about how “industry” had been so wrong over the last decade.

His stories were well-rehearsed, extra colour was added and it was evident that Axel had, on so many occasions, fabricated and recounted these events to make it seem like he was there and knew what was going on in these companies he was criticising, so much so that he had momentarily forgotten that he was speaking to a room of people who had actually been there. It might have come to his surprise that those at the table were not so awe-inspired by the sound of his voice going on about how inept or dishonest “industry” was. The problem was that I had been involved in all of the events Axel was babbling on about, and I knew he was talking complete bollocks.

For example, Axel was informing us how the big multinationals in the chemical industry, during the first reading of REACH, were using SMEs to do the heavy lobbying for them. At that time, I was managing communications for Product Stewardship in Cefic and was acutely aware of the challenges that the VCI funding of a small group of SMEs had posed to our ability to speak with a common voice. When I tried to challenge Axel with some realities, he chose to ignore me – there was only going to be one voice in this anti-industry narrative, and listening was not his strong point.

During the day, at the trade association conference, Axel made a presentation where he mocked “industry” for what he called playing dirty on brominated flame retardants (at that time, I was at Burson-Marsteller working on BSEF and somehow did not see this mysterious world of smoke and mirrors that Axel was so sure of) or, in another beautifully woven masterpiece, of how “industry” tried to make up research techniques to whitewash evidence of migration of phthalates from children’s PVC chew toys (at that time, I was at Solvay and we were facing a challenge to develop new testing models to simulate real use situations – research demands that no one had ever been confronted with before).

It was clear that Axel was a great story-teller, but he was not there during the time of these situations and it did not seem to matter that his stories were factually weak (OK, pure fiction). Indeed, the more a child tells a fabrication, the more he or she believes it to be true, and Axel seemed so convincing, he had almost fooled me. But as I got fed up listening to his lecturing and moral condescension, I found myself staring into my salad (ironically while Axel was munching on his foie gras) and wondering why “industry” does not take the time to tell its story, and leaves history to be written by those artists from the environmental activist community like Axel who seem to have no qualms about revisionism and self-aggrandisement.

Why are the actors in the business community not telling their story? There are many possible reasons. Time is usually tight with much energy spent on dealing with a myriad of issues on one’s plate (usually at the same time and often brought about by such clever storytellers like Axel). In the pragmatic world of business, there is little time for philosophy or big picture analyses. The corporate world has a type of career rotation path, where many individuals arrive in a post (eg, in Brussels) for a period of four to five years and then move on to their next posting back in the head office.

When I looked around the table at the uncomfortable audience listening to Axel listening to himself, I realised that I was the only one there who had been working on REACH eight years ago. Where is the university textbook on REACH that those in the business world can use to understand what had happened and when? Those who were heavily involved have either moved on, or have limited themselves to the anecdotal (and usually only after a few drinks). Meanwhile trust is being lost due to story-tellers with ill-intentioned agendas.

In a blog I plan to release in January, I will detail why I feel there needs to be some sort of academic chair in chemical policy management (an idea I had floated almost a decade ago). The more others tell these stories, and the less academic research is being done on how industrial groups should approach policy, the worse the image and reputation of certain industries will become … and the more little militants like Axel will have a free reign to rewrite events from the foundation of their colourful bias. So please tell your story – otherwise the only ones who will are those who weren’t there and know nothing about the realities of companies.

A key indicator that someone is talking complete nonsense is to listen to their choice of words. During my dinner with Axel, he kept banging on about “industry” as if it referred to some homogeneous evil body. It is a clear sign that he has never worked in this body he so quickly criticises since he was unable to distinguish between big multinationals, SMEs, suppliers up and down the value chain, academic start-ups, consultants, associations, service providers and public-private cooperations. They were all the same part of this evil “industry” and he did not seem to understand the nature of how innovation and competition work, how one part of the value chain is often in conflict with another or how trade associations have to navigate between a cornucopia of interests and influences. When groups like CEO (who have demonstrated they have no idea about what goes on in a company) criticise industry lobbying by counting emails sent to EU addresses, they suffer from a myopia that all of these “lobbyists” are the same and are expressing the same interests – what idiots!

If someone is using the term “industry” in a critical tone, chances are, like during my dinner with Axel, they are talking complete nonsense. But if no one else is there to tell the story, who are we to notice?

 

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