Coming Unglued

After years of controversy, St. Paul's H.B. Fuller pulls the plug on anaddictive adhesive

Scott Hendler, a lawyer in Austin, Texas, has another theory: He suspects the company pulled out of Latin America for fear of litigation. In 1996 he sued Fuller on behalf of the family of a Guatemalan child who died, allegedly as a result of glue addiction; the suit was dismissed after a judge found that it should be tried in Guatemala. Hendler says he is involved in "very serious discussions" about additional lawsuits.

All that said, Fuller's silent turnaround still seems surprising. After years of controversy, why not make a big public-relations splash trumpeting a humanitarian business move?

"One element that comes into play is that H.B. Fuller doesn't sell to the general public," offers Paul Maccabee, president of the Maccabee Group, a Minneapolis public-relations agency that has never done business with Fuller. "Ninety-nine percent of the Twin Cities public is completely ignorant of H.B. Fuller's conflicts and controversies." In such a situation, Maccabee surmises, it might be wise for a company to avoid stirring up new strife with a high-profile announcement.

Daniel Ruen

Besides, Maccabee points out, when activists have fought a large corporation, "usually it's the advocacy group that goes to the media and says, 'We've won!'" Harris did send out a press release after learning of Fuller's policy change from Harper's. But attorney Hendler is still skeptical. "I don't think anything they say is gospel until I have independent validation," he says, disputing the company's statement that it hasn't sold solvent-based Resistol shoe glues in Honduras and Guatemala since 1992. "We checked it. They were available at least two to three years after that on store shelves," Hendler says. "They're masters of misinformation."

Harris says he's pleased with Fuller's decision, but years of battling the company--and taking care of addicted kids--make him cautious. He says he has written to Groff to ask whether Fuller will be licensing its solvent-based technology to other companies that might sell the glue in Latin America. (Groff says it won't.) He also plans to watch and see whether Resistol truly disappears from the streets when current supplies run out, something Fuller says should happen in a few months.

Until then, Harris says, he's not comfortable congratulating his longtime adversary. "They could have done this five years ago and saved all this mud that is now associated with their name," he declares. "I just don't trust them."

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