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

In the email to Burgess later shared with me and a few other journalists, Brulle elaborated:

I believe that this information should have been provided to the reader of your story.  While what EDF says is technically correct, it is misleading.  EDF received an extremely large grant of over $16 million from the Walton Family Foundation in 2009, and $7 million in both 2008 and 2010. In addition, a review of the IRS 990 of the Environmental Defense Fund indicates that the grandson of the founder of Wal-Mart – Sam Rawlings Walton, is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Environmental Defense Fund: http://www.edf.org/people/board-of-trustees  Notably, EDF does not identify him as associated with Wal-Mart, and instead describes him as a “Boatman, Philanthropist, Entrepreneur.”

The CJR post also quotes EDF’s Jon Coifman,who maintains that the whole thing was a misunderstanding. According to Coifman, EDF officials hadn’t realized the story would focus on the group’s relationship with Wal-Mart. If they had, he says, they would have taken pains to make sure she understood about the foundation grants. But Coifman’s remarks clash with EDF’s website, which simply states: “Since we do not accept funds from our corporate partners, we are free to broadly share our recommendations and innovations.”

To her credit, the reporter, Stephanie Clifford, alerted the newspaper’s corrections department when she learned of her oversight. But editors declined to correct the story, as the Columbia Journalism Review’s Curtis Brainard explains in a post on the CJR site today.

The Times is clinging to the position that the statement wasn’t technically wrong. But there’s a strong argument on the other side too: By uncritically passing on EDF’s claims of funding independence, isn’t the Times misleading its readers?

It would be nice to get a debate going on this subject. Please share your views below.

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About greendistrict

I'm Christine MacDonald, a journalist and the author of the book: "Green, Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone B

Posted on April 25, 2012, in Business ethics, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Social Responsiblity, Environment, greenwash, Journalism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. It seems to me that this article really exposes the insidious nature of corporate power as such. It’s not so much about “good” corporations and “bad” corporation or “ethical” or “unethical” corporate leaders as it is the nature corporations as a way of organizing human interaction. The Occupy movement is first and foremost an anticorporate movement and while it is very new, it seeks to find new and more democratic means of organizing society from below. The Occupy movement is not especially well designed to be able to present glib and coherent alternatives to the nature of corporate power. It’s decision making processes are far too cumbersome and convoluted. Nevetheless, the Occupy movement has inspired and energized and will continue to inspire and energize virtually every other social movement, particularly in the anticorporate manifestations of their positions. The Occupy movement has brought new life to the labor movement and to the movements for social justice. It has also energized the environmental movement as never before. However, Occupy, while it can play an important supportive and energizing role is not really well equipped to supply programatic alternatives and that really is up to the movements that Occupy supports.

  2. For what its worth, here is the text of the letter I sent to the Editor of the NY Times. I have
    received no further word on this proposed letter since i sent it in on Thursday, April 20th.

    To the Editor:
    Re: Unexpected Ally Helps Wal-Mart Cut Waste April 13, 2012:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/14/business/wal-mart-and-environmental-fund-team-up-to-cut-waste.html?_r=1&ref=business

    This article misses important information and conveys a misleading impression about the relationship between EDF and Wal-Mart. Specifically, it notes that EDF does not accept corporate donations, but fails to mention that, according to IRS records, the Walton Family Foundation (controlled by the owners of Wal-Mart) contributed more than $34 million to EDF from 2007 to 2010. In addition, a Walton family member, Sam Rawlings Walton, is on EDF’s Board. This information brings into question the entire context of the article, which reads like a PR piece for Wal-Mart. Unanswered questions: How can EDF maintain its independence when one of the members of its board is also on the board of Wal-Mart? Is EDF assisting Wal-Mart in greenwashing its image? Despite my contacting the public editor, no action has been taken on these egregious omissions. I hope a real journalistic story is forthcoming.

  3. The entire global warming / environmental industry is about power and money. Of course big industries are going to cash in as the see it as easy money. Just look at how the wind energy industry has grown out of subsidy, without which it wouldn’t be able to produce anything useful.
    The wind and solar industries have decimated economies in Europe, each green job removing 2 other jobs from the economy and diverting money from a poorer and poorer population to a kabal of landowners and industrialists.
    When is everybody going to wake up to the fact that Al Gore et al are the 1%?

  4. Thanks, Christine, for spotlighting this. Money corrupts. It is that simple. EDF may have the best intentions, but unfortunately funding operations and self-preservation are among them.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary,
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  5. Mark Vanderhoek

    I think environmental groups can accept corporate money or corporate foundation money, but only without strings (particularly board seats). They should also disclose it. I think the Times should have issued a clarification as well.

  6. Thanks to all your for your comments. It’s an important topic that’s been generating more debate in recent years. Still much more discussion is needed on how to make the environmental movement more effective.

  7. Ok. Playing devil’s advocate here: I also used to firmly believe environmental groups working with corporations was a win-win. (Heck! I worked at Conservation International.) But I now wonder if corporate executives don’t usually get the better of the deals. They are, by virtue of their success in the competitive corporate world, excellent negotiators.

    And I think people underestimate the human dimensions of these things. When environmentalists make friends with corporate executives and hang out with them at posh fundraising parties, meeting celebrities and traveling by private jet on field trips to some of the world’s most beautiful natural areas, it can make them much less effective as watchdogs of the public interest. (Heck! I worked at C.I.!)

    Am I too cynical? Let’s continue the debate.

  8. Here’s another greenwash question: Is CI’s new partnership with B2 bomber maker Northrop Grumman benefit biodiversity? Or is it greenwash? Please read and comment here: http://greendistrict.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/whats-the-fallout-when-green-groups-greenwashing-for-corporations/

  1. Pingback: What’s the fallout when green groups greenwashing for corporations? « greendistrict

  2. Pingback: What’s the Fallout When Green Groups “Partner” with Arms Makers? | Conservation International & Nature Conservancy | Wrong Kind of Green | the NGOs & conservation groups that are bargaining away our future

  3. Pingback: NGO “dissolves” after questions raised over corporate funding « greendistrict

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