Monthly Archives: April 2012

What’s the fallout when green groups “partner” with arms makers?

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

"Bombs Away!" by Anxious223 Chris Dixon. Creative Commons license.

About a year ago Conservation International was pilloried by a couple of British videographers posing as executives of the arms maker Lockheed Martin. They bamboozled a C.I. official in London into a meeting where she outlined several ways the nonprofit could “partner” with the arms maker under terms that looked a lot like greenwashing. You can watch the video here and judge for yourself if C.I. did anything wrong.

I had a few issues with the “exposé;” chiefly that C.I. already had dealings with B2 bomber maker Northrop Grumman, whose chairman and CEO Wes Bush is a member of its board of directors. And another big group, The Nature Conservancy, was already in the pay of Lockheed. These existing relationships undermined the shock value the scamsters were going for.

Still, you’d think the critique, or at least the bad press coverage it generated, would inspire reflection about the reputational damage some corporate deals can bring down on a nonprofit organization. More specifically, is a company that makes weapons of war an appropriate partner for a group whose mission is saving the Earth’s biodiversity? Well, if those questions were raised, they didn’t lead to change.

C.I. has just cranked up its P.R. machine in service of a new partnership with Northrop, “a unique and innovative professional development program for public middle and high school science teachers.”

In a nutshell: The Northrop Grumman Foundation will pay for 16 teachers from four U.S. public school systems to visit CI’s Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network’s Volcan Barva site inside La Selva Biological Station and Braulio Carrillo National Park in Costa Rica.

“We believe that supporting professional development opportunities for teachers will have the greatest impact on engaging students in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. We expect this program will help cultivate the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Sandy Andelman, vice president at Conservation International in a press release the two partners issued April 19.

Whoa! That statement requires a reality check. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are 3.6 million K to 12 grade teachers in the United States spread across 14,000 public school districts. The group selected for this program doesn’t even come close to representing 1 percent of the teachers in the country.

While they will surely have a rewarding time and may even return home to inspire their students, the scale of the program is too small to have the impact Andelman claims. Like so many of these corporate-conservationist joint ventures they are more symbolic than substantive.

They deliver real public relations boons for Northrop, however, which might explain why the Falls Church, Vir. -based company features the “ECO classroom” as a top story on its homepage.

Hat tip to Wiki Scraper for writing the search tool that brought this story to my attention.

While we’re on the subject of corporate-environmentalist ties, here’s another couple of recent stories that deserve mentions:

This upbeat Q & A featuring Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton and C.I.’s CEO Peter Seligmann comes out as Wal-Mart as struggles to overcome awkward questions about its greening policies and a recent bribery scandal.

Many environmental groups, including C.I., don’t count donations from corporate-tied foundations as “corporate” cash. Instead, they report money from the likes of the Walton Family Foundation and the Northrop foundation as foundation grants, which helps them claim that only a fraction of their funding comes from corporate sources.  For that matter, C.I. doesn’t tally the money it receives from scions like Rob Walton in the corporate column either. But Walton, in this article, doesn’t talk like someone whose relationship to C.I. is detached from the workings of the family firm, even if he does say he leaves the day-to-day greening to “middle managers.”

Environmental Defense Fund was caught in a similar controversy last week. The group claims to take zero corporate dollars but the Walton Family Foundation granted EDF $16 million in 2009 and continuing support equal to more than $7 million in 2010, among other support.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post reports this morning that an obscure private foundation threatened to pull funding from the Potomac Riverkeeper group unless it dropped its opposition to a trading scheme proposed as part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Misleading coverage of Wal-Mart

In a story last week examining the relationship between the Environmental Defense Fund and Wal-Mart, a reporter for The New York Times uncritically passed on EDF’s claim that it doesn’t receive funding from Wal-Mart.

The prominent environmental group has built a reputation as an “honest broker” that works with corporations but isn’t their pockets, so to speak.

But that claim glosses over the millions of dollars EDF takes from corporate foundations, including the Wal-Mart Family Foundation. Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, quickly brought the issue to the attention of Times Public Editor Joseph Burgess along with this chart detailing donations:

Grantmaker Name

Recipient Name Year Authorized Grant Amount Types(s) of Support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2003 110,000

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2004

541,170 Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2005

1,050,000

Continuing support
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2006

3,547,863
Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2007

3,723,498

Walton Family Foundation, Inc.

Environmental Defense

2008

7,369,989

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense 2009

16,010,775

Continuing support

Walton Family Foundation, Inc. Environmental Defense

2010

7,086,054 Continuing support

Read the rest of this entry

DC’s smart meters going heywire?

Chris Turner's smart meter at work. Click to watch video.

For those of us following the climate change debate, we’ve heard for years that before we can build a clean energy economy we need a “smart grid” capable of plugging into an array of big and small power sources — from residential rooftop solar panels to massive wind farms.

But, it turns out even here in Washington, D.C., there are those who see something more sinister in the smart technology.  For some,  the “smart meters” represent a  massive new assault on the airwaves and public health.

It’s not exactly the kind of rabble rousing underway in Tea Party strongholds, where the meters are considered part of a United Nations’ plot to outlaw America’s beloved suburban sprawl  and herd everyone into “smart growth” shoebox apartments and “walkable” neighborhoods. D.C. activists, however, are using some of the same arguments and links to rail against the technology update. That might be part of the reason they aren’t getting much traction with city officials or their own neighbors.

Read more about DC’s meter battle in my story in today’s Washington City Paper.

WWF ally named in “massive” illegal logging scandal

Orangutan photo by Barefoot in Florida. Creative commons license.

UPDATE: I messaged WWF asking for comment + will post a response when I hear back.

A longtime ally of WWF has been implicated in a “massive illegal logging kickback scandal” inside one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. What’s more, the official, Musa Aman, Chief Minister of Malaysia’s Sabah region, is accused of making a fortune off of the same endangered orangutan habitat that he promised to protect.

Over the last several years, WWF has broadcast its partnerships with Aman’s Sabah government to protect the Borneo forest (home to the orangutans) and expand region’s marine protected areas. Aman even gave a keynote speech at WWF’s Asian green business conference last November. And Datuk Dr Dionysius S.K. Sharma, WWF Malaysia chief executive officer, has praised Aman’s “visionary leadership” for “walking the talk” of nature conservation.

“Sustainable development will determine if we get to keep this planet, and Sabah, with the leadership that it has, will be able to keep this part of the world intact,” Dionysius told a Malaysia newspaper last December.

WWF, however, has remained mum on the scandal that erupted this spring after a Malaysian activist group published documents allegedly leaked from two police investigations. The evidence compiled by anti-corruption units in Malaysia and Hong Kong included copies of bank records allegedly showing how an accomplice moved money from timber companies into a secret Swiss bank account held in trust for Aman.

The story is yet another dredged up by the daily news search created by the folks at Wiki Scraper. (Click on the link to check it out!)

WWF and other nature groups often court power brokers like Aman — relationships that have helped expand national parks and forests worldwide in recent decades. But corruption, weak rule of law, lack of funding, and other problems often leave these new wildlife preserves “protected” on paper only. The nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have lost credibility and local support by partnering with corrupt politicians, autocratic regimes and polluting corporations.

Previous Wiki Scraper finds include this piece alleging that staffers at my former employer, Conservation International, were directly involved in illegally felling trees inside a Vietnam nature preserve. (CI has denied the allegation and reportedly plans its own investigation.)

The recent scandals are just the latest reminder of the growing “reputational” travails facing international conservation groups, also known as BINGOs (big international nonprofit organizations). As controversies in remote rainforests start to reach their Western supporters, WWF, C.I., The Nature Conservancy and other groups are writing more people-friendly mission statements and policies. However, not everyone under the “environmentalists” umbrella buys the re-branding efforts; in fact, they’ve sparked a new round of debate over the direction of the movement.

Keeping tabs on corporate-funded environmentalism

When I wrote a book a few years ago examining how corporate donations influence the environmental movement, the research was a slog.

Hundreds of press releases, annual reports, tax returns, brochures, special reports, websites and subsidiary websites for both the companies and the nonprofit groups had to be perused. And keeping up with continuing developments? Daunting!

It occurred to me that there had to be a better way to keep tabs on the new deals and the scandals. So I brought the question with me to a hacker-meets-hack style event organized by the Washington Post and other news outlets a few weeks ago. The Post invited the UK-based ScraperWiki outfit to run the two day “data derby” — part competitive scrape, part skills building exercise.

Read the rest of this entry

End of Landfills?

Calgary's Spy Hill landfill. Photo by D'Arcy Norman. Creative commons license.

After reading one too many reports about corporations going “zero waste,” I began to wonder what this means for landfills. Could we really be headed toward a world without trash dumps and Superfund sites?

Considering that there’s possibly as much as 30 tons of industrial trash for every ton of municipal solid waste, we are talking a lot of trash; though corporations have even trashed the word and now consider their castoffs the fodder of new “profit centers.” But what happens to these newly branded “resources” after they’ve been “reduced, reused or recycled”?  I learned it’s far from a straightforward question. Read the story on Alternet.org.

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