Category Archives: Corporate Citizenship

Will Congress bargain away the last of old growth forests?

Tongass National Forest by amanderson2. Creative Commons license

My latest story for Alternet examines how some of the country’s last remaining ancient forestland may be bargained away this year as a political favor to the campaign benefactors of one U.S. Senator.

READ THIS STORY

WWF faces new charges of corporate greenwashing

The story also discusses "The Pact with the Panda," another WWF exposé aired on Germany's WDR TV network.

from “The Pact with the Panda,” a German TV exposé on WWF

German magazine, DER SPIEGEL, has a new article examining whether one of the world’s largest and best known environmental groups, WWF, protects nature or “merely offer[s] the illusion of help?”

In a nutshell: The story concludes that WWF’s “business model,” which relies on funding from big companies, is better at corporate greenwashing than preserving nature and endangered species.

The magazine sent reporters to South America and Indonesia to investigate WWF’s agribusiness roundtable initiatives on how to reduce habitat destruction caused by large-scale soybean and palm oil plantations and other commodity crops. In the last dozen years or so, WWF has received accolades in some circles (and criticism in others) for bringing together agribusiness companies, international grain traders, and corporate-friendly nonprofit groups. The resulting “sustainable” soybeans and palm oil are finally starting to enter international commodities markets. But SPIEGEL found some troubling discrepancies between hype and reality:

In Brazil, an agricultural industry executive talked about the first shipload of sustainable soybeans, certified in accordance with WWF standards, to reach Rotterdam last year, amid a flurry of PR hype. The executive had to admit, however, that he wasn’t entirely sure where the shipment had come from. In Sumatra, members of a tribal group reported how troops hired by WWF partner Wilmar had destroyed their houses, because they had stood in the way of unfettered palm oil production.

For anyone interested in the growing backlash against corporate-sponsored environmental groups, the story is worth a read.

UPDATE: Another WWF corporate partner, Ikea, is accused of logging old growth forests. The 40-member Global Forestry Coalition has just issued a report charging the company’s Swedwood subsidiary with clearcutting a biodiverse Russian forest. The coalition maintains that  trees as old as 600 years are being felled to keep up with sales of Ikea’s popular home furnishings. The company has strongly denied the charges pointing to its lengthy environmental credentials. Besides its forest campaign with WWF,  it holds several Forest Stewardship Council certifications. In this article, Ikea defends its sustainability record and denies harvesting ancient trees. In fact, it says, the trees being cut down in Karelia, Russian, average 160-years-old.

Hmmmm … how long does the average Ikea dinner table last?

More coverage here and here.

The Potomac: America’s most beleaguered river, new report

The Potomac is the nation’s most imperiled river, according to a report issued today by the nonprofit group, American Rivers.

Pescados by Daquella manera (Daniel Lobo)
Creative Commons license

The river, which supplies drinking water to five million people in the Greater Washington region, suffers from a bad case of  runoff from laws and factory farms, alike. those woes have turned the Potomac into a spawning ground for so-called “intersex fish” – male fish born with ovaries. Yikes! Scientists have linked the chemicals in lawn fertilizer and “chicken litter” (manure produced in large quantities at the region’s poultry farms) that get washed into the waterways where they wreak havoc of fish reproduction and create habitat-crippling dead zones bereft of oxygen, among other things.

The Washington Post today notes that U.S. Congress has failed to act despite growing evidence that what’s happening to the fish may be a disturbing sign of the human health implications. In fact, sentiment on Capitol Hill is moving in the other direction with Republicans periodically launching attempts to roll back the Clean Air Act, reporter Darryl Fears notes, quoting environmentalists.

The landmark federal law, which turns 40-years-old this year, has led to major improvements in the health of the nation’s waterways, experts say. At the time of its passage in 1972, some U.S. rivers were such reeking open sewers that they sometimes caught fire. Nevertheless, the Potomac is one of ten that continue face the most serious ongoing problems.

Besides the Potomac, today’s top ten list, of sorts, includes the following:

  • Green River (which runs through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado)
  • Chattahoochee River (Georgia)
  • Missouri River (nine states in the central United States)
  • Hoback River (Wyoming)
  •  Grand River (Ohio)
  • Skykomish River (Washington)
  • Crystal River (Colorado)
  •  Coal River (West Virginia)
  •  Kansas River (Kansas)

NGO “dissolves” after questions raised over corporate funding

prescription drugs in bottle

By Somegeekintn. Creative Commons license

The Washington Post reports today on the demise of the nonprofit group, the American Pain Foundation, that used its funding from big pharmaceutical and medical device companies to play down “the risks associated with opioid painkillers while exaggerating the benefits from the drugs.”

Today’s story follows up on an exposé published last December that used the foundation’s annual report to explain how more than 90 percent of its $5 million budget came from the makers of such drugs as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Those revelations led to a Senate Finance Committee investigation launched yesterday. Also yesterday, the foundation reportedly announced it could no longer remain “operational” and would “dissolve.”

Had its corporate funders fled from the scandal? The post report says the foundation was not taking questions yesterday. But it would not be the first time a corporation has ditched a nonprofit partner after issues of propriety arose.

The example that comes to mind is The Nature Conservancy’s Land Legacy program with Centex, the homebuilder. For every home the company product, it kicked back $35 as a donation to TNC. Eyebrow-raising considering that other environmental groups had criticized Centex as a purveyor of suburban sprawl, a scourge to nature preservation. The deal created internal tension and discord among Conservancy staffers, according to a 2003 Washington Post expose on the nature group. What did Centex do? It took the program over to the Conservation Fund, and after Centex and Pulte Homes merged in 2009, forming PulteGroup, the fund was renamed the PulteGroup Land Legacy Fund. Besides renaming the arrangement, the company and the NGO have gotten savvier in how they discuss it. Today, they tout it as a $2.5 million “revolving fund” paying for “the protection of more than 73,000 acres, achieving dramatic results for wetlands, forests and waterways coast to coast.”

Questionable corporate funding of nonprofit groups is so often in the news these days (THINK: ALEC, Heartland Institute, the American Diabetes AssociationEnvironmental Defense Fund, and the Sierra Club, among others.) new revelations seem to have lost much of their shock value. For instance, you’d think CF’s dealings with the PulteGroup could tinge its reputation just as it sullied TNC’s, but apparently that’s not a good enough reason to turn down the cash.

Questionable corporate largess isn’t just limited to nonprofit groups. Tom Philpott has a post on Mother Jones today questioning the independence of universities that take research grants from Big Ag companies such as Monsanto.

Nonprofit groups are embedded in nearly every aspect of life these days (even ProPublica, the investigative newsroom that produced today’s exposé, is an NGO). But  the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require nonprofits to tell the public much about their funding sources, which  leaves reporters and other watchdogs reliant on the information the groups choose to share. Many groups voluntarily publish at least a partial roster of donors, which ironically, exactly what ProPublica did; reporters used a donor list in its annual report to connect the dots between its corporate relationships and its public advocacy.

But how often do organizations leave out donations that might lead to awkward questions about corporate cash? As last year’s $26 million Sierra Club-Chesapeake Gas scandal illustrates, it’s much too easy to hide these relationships and obscure their influence.

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

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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.

The Climate Two Step

More caution needed on climate change, scientists say.

If news were like music that sets the tempo of public opinion, the latest spate of climate change headlines is tapping out something like a two-step. One step closer to certainty, then the music reels toward denialism; Inspiring, if brief, performances by grassroots activists, flanked by the chorus line of corporate sponsorships and murky backroom dealings.

Last week the world’s leading scientific authority on global warming, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued a report linking extreme weather to climate change and urged governments around the world to step up their efforts for dealing with “climate extremes.” The same day U.S. Congress  killed plans for a national climate agency.

Months of protesting the Keystone pipeline led to a postponement that could provide bureaucratic deathblow to the project. But it turns out that defeating the pipeline will not keep the Canadian tar sands from flowing to refineries via other routes, including the millions of miles of existing U.S. pipelines that already transport — and sometimes spill — the particularly gooey and toxic fossil fuel.

The Sierra Club‘s longtime leader Carl Pope has finally stepped down amid what the Los Angeles Times said was “discontent that the group founded by 19th century wilderness evangelist John Muir has compromised its core principles.” Pope’s replacement, Michael Brune, declared “done” the $1.3 million sponsorship deal Pope had championed with the makers of Clorox  bleach. Brune vowed to never again risk sullying the venerable institution’s reputation by shilling for another corporate polluter. Having been one of those who criticized the Sierra Club’s Clorox deal, it’s good to see the new leadership heeding concerns about greenwashing. But virtually all of the the country’s other flagship environmental groups are beholden to corporate “sponsors” and “partners” today, as the recent greenwashing scandals involving  World Wildlife Fund and the National Park Foundation and their corporate sponsor, the Coke-a-Cola Co, atest.

GMOs + CAFOs attemp a makeover

Photo by Graham Boyle

Check out the GMO corn-fish car built by members of Washington’s intrepid artist/activist collective DC51. These local talents supply the visuals for a wide variety of environmental and human rights marches here in the nation’s capital. Usually, they silkscreen posters, banners and the occasional limited edition T-shirt. This repurposed sedan takes art-for-the-revolution to a new level. But the car is not just cute; It’s meant call attention to concerns about farmed fish raised on GMO corn.  It’s also road worthy. The corn-fish navigated the interstate highway system last month to attend a New York City protest of genetically modified organisms such as lab-altered corn and soybeans used not just to feed the fishes but in so many of the foods we find in the supermarket.

My new blog post on the E Magazine site discusses current efforts to makeover GMOs and frankenfish, among other parts of our industrial food system. here’s an excerpt:

October is proving a busy month for the country’s old guard food industries. After a decade of books and documentaries exposing the more unsavory aspects of how our food is produced, Big Ag and consumer brand companies are striking back with campaigns aimed at quelling the country’s growing disaffection with CAFO-raised beef, fake “fruit” snacks and sugary cereals.

In Washington, D.C., in recent weeks, members of the food and advertising industries urged Congress to dump a planned update to federal nutritional guidelines on foods marketed to kids. The draft rules, announced last April
 by the Interagency Working Group, made up of representatives from the Food and drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are aimed at combating child obesity.

Read the rest of this post on the E site.

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