By Jennifer Bjorhus
Knight Ridder Newspapers
MAPLEWOOD, Minn. -- Scotchgard is back.
The familiar plaid aerosol can never really disappeared from the shelves. But Scotchgard's journey back to the market has been rocky -- and the stain-repellent is still missing from the furniture upholstery industry. 3M Co.'s venerable line of fabric protectants -- so ubiquitous that "Scotchgard" became a verb -- has been struggling since the Environmental Protection Agency pressed 3M in 2000 to stop using the chemistry behind the spray.
New formula safer?
Maplewood-based 3M, which has lost two-thirds of its former $300 million-a-year Scotchgard business, hopes to rebuild it to $500 million by 2008. Finally finished with its phase-out and armed with a new formula it says is safe and better than ever, 3M is launching major Scotchgard replacements this summer, marketing them like new products.
Clothing pretreated with Scotchgard will reappear in stores this summer, with the debut of the new Scotchgard aerosol spray for consumers. A new ad campaign is slated for this winter. And Scotchgard is headed for places it hasn't been before, in eyeglass lenses and in paint.
But it can't happen fast enough for Wall Street, which wants to know what's taking so long even as the EPA sharpens scrutiny of the chemical family behind both Scotchgards, old and new.
And there's some confusion among Scotchgard customers.
"I thought they discontinued this stuff," said a woman picking up a can of the new Scotchgard at 3M's recent shareholders meeting.
For nearly 50 years 3M has marketed Scotchgard, a bedrock brand that evolved after some rubber particles a chemist cooked up in 1953 accidentally splattered on her assistant's tennis shoe. The stubborn goo wouldn't come off.
Scotchgard grew to encompass some 100 products -- most based on a key chemical known for its remarkable ability to repel nearly anything people threw at it. The chemical breaks down into perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a man-made substance that is part of a family of chemicals characterized by chains of carbon atoms of various lengths bonded to fluorine atoms, yielding armor-like compounds. PFOS has a chain of eight carbon atoms, or C8.
But PFOS began showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its eight-carbon cousin perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which 3M sold to other companies such as DuPont for use in products like Teflon.
The two man-made perfluorochemicals don't decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and there are potential links to tissue problems, developmental delays and some forms of cancer.
3M knew much of this because it had studied the chemicals for decades. It insists that at typical low levels found in Scotchgard and elsewhere the chemicals posed no health or environmental risk.
Lawsuit over exposure
A former employee has sued the company over exposure to perfluorochemicals at the company's Decatur, Ala., plant. 3M says the case has no merit.
Yet accounts differ as to whether 3M voluntarily phased out the problematic C8 chemistry or was pressured by the EPA after the company shared its data in late 1999. The EPA concluded PFOS was toxic. Either way, the phase-out was largely completed last December, although 3M still makes small amounts of PFOA for its own use in Germany. 3M, which still monitors chemical plants in Cottage Grove, Decatur, and Antwerp, Belgium, insists there are no risks for employees who handled or were exposed to the chemicals.
The phase-out went unnoticed by most consumers as 3M rapidly substituted another, less-effective spray for consumers. But the move stunned industrial clients -- the bulk of Scotchgard's business. 3M's chemists scrambled to reformulate Scotchgard for all its markets: the aerosol spray for general consumers, which 3M has fixed twice and is reintroducing this summer; carpet mills, for whom 3M found a substitute right away; the apparel industry, where 3M just introduced a substitute; and the upholstery industry, where Scotchgard remains on hiatus. The lags have hurt.
"It was awful for a while," recalled Robert Beaty, vice president of sales for The Synthetics Group in Pennsylvania, one of the largest finishers of furniture upholstery. "We've called them several times to see what's going on."
The replacement aerosol-can Scotchgard that 3M first distributed to stores didn't work as well as the original. It was based on a non-perfluoro chemistry and worked on water but not grease. Nothing repels like perfluorochemicals, 3M concluded. The challenge was to find safe ones.
3M settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a four-carbon cousin of the chemical in the old Scotchgard, as the building block for Scotchgard's new generation.
"For providing protection you almost can't do it without a fluorochemical, short of plastic slipcovers," said Michael Harnetty, vice president of 3M's protective materials division.
The new C4-based Scotchgard is completely safe, 3M says. The company adds that it has worked closely with the EPA and has performed more than 40 studies, which are confidential. The EPA won't release them.
According to 3M, the results show that under federal EPA guidelines, PFBS isn't toxic and doesn't accumulate the way the old chemical did. It does persist in the environment, but 3M concluded that isn't a problem if it isn't accumulating or toxic. PFBS can enter the bloodstream of people and animals but "it's eliminated very quickly" and does no harm at typical very low levels, said Michael Santoro, 3M's director of Environmental Health, Safety &; Regulatory Affairs. 3M limits sales to applications where emissions are low.
"Practically nontoxic," is the company's final assessment.
As part of its routine checks under the Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA in 2001 gave PFBS clearance for commercialization. But the agency continues investigating the whole perfluorochemical family for possible toxicity issues, said Mary Dominiak, an environmental protection specialist at the agency.
The Environmental Working Group remains unconvinced the new chemistry is safe.
"This is from the same company that made PFOS for how many decades after they knew it was a problem," said Kristin Thayer, senior scientist at the Washington, D.C., advocacy group. "It's hardly reassuring."
It is common chemical sense, Thayer said, that if PFOS and PFOA are toxic at higher doses, then other perfluorochemicals might be, too. 3M should release its studies on PFBS to a broad group of scientists, Thayer said.
"3M is producing another persistent chemical," said Thayer. "If we find out there's a problem with them, there's no going back. There are major toxicity issues with this family of chemicals."
3M says convincing consumers Scotchgard is safe is not its No. 1 challenge; rather it's simply getting the new, new Scotchgard out. The brand, 3M maintains, is untarnished.
"This issue of safety, oddly enough, never registered on the customers' radar screen," said 3M's Harnetty.
Within days of its phase-out announcement, 3M began sampling consumers repeatedly, said Harnetty. Researchers detected no change in attitude toward Scotchgard. Some commercial clients say Scotchgard remains a powerful brand.
"We still get really good requests like, 'Will you Scotchgard this fabric with Teflon?"' said The Synthetic Group's Beaty.
National branding pros say 3M and Scotchgard had enough equity built up with consumers over the years to take the hit, which generated relatively little media attention. And there was no clear side effect to dramatize environmental concerns. In other words, no sick child. It all barely made a dent in the brand's image, said a local branding expert.
"Because there's no personal story to tie to it makes it less memorable," said Scott Gold, senior brand consultant at The Brand Consultancy in Washington, D.C.
A still bigger challenge, Harnetty said, is getting the chemistry right and making Scotchgard available again. As chief executive James McNerney explained to analysts in January: "You have the dynamic of a long phase-out and long sales cycle. We're still in that awkward state but we can rebuild that business."
That's been tougher than expected. In the carpet industry, where 3M immediately introduced a substitute, it still lost some accounts. One was Shaw Industries, one of the world's largest carpet manufacturers, which switched to other products.
"It was a pretty big hiccup," said carpet consultant Thomas Rennie in Dalton, Ga. "I think it's still in the trial period."
Then there's the upholstery business, where 3M is still missing in action.
"I dropped it altogether when the warning came out," said Roger Gilmartin, chief financial officer of Covington Industries Inc., a major furniture fabric supplier based in New York. "I don't put Scotchgard on anything even if people ask for it."
The problem is that furniture upholstery takes an even bigger beating than carpeting. A protectant has to be extremely durable, and 3M is still tweaking the chemistry, Harnetty says. He expects furniture pretreated with Scotchgard to be back on the market next spring.
"We haven't yet solved the upholstery problem," Harnetty says. "We're working like demons on it."
3M's overall strategy is simple: Roll out new Scotchgard as the chemistry is finalized. Treat it like the introduction of a new product rather than a reintroduction.
The rollout picks up speed this summer as updated spray cans hit store shelves. Scotchgard tags will start appearing this summer on pretreated men's pants and children's khakis for back-to-school. The tags will be on women's clothes by fall as a national product campaign unfurls.
3M will only describe the upcoming ad campaign as "pretty substantial," including newspaper and magazine ads and television spots slated to air in the fourth quarter. The main message is "trust and protection," said Harnetty. Ads won't compare the old Scotchgard with the new.
Also coming are new uses for Scotchgard embedded in other products. It's already in ceramics, such as toilets, in Europe. Within six months it will be in major interior paint brands for the first time, to deflect crayons and lipstick scrawls. In about another year there will be Scotchgard wall tiles. Late next year you may see Scotchgard eyeglass lenses.
"We've gone right back to the 3M playbook on new product introduction and we're following a very successful formula," Harnetty said. "It's all paced by when the chemistry is available."