Category Archives: Corporate sponsorship

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.

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.

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

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.

Who gains when Enviros + Corps do Business?

While researching this post on how corporations and political parties “shape” public opinion, I stumbled upon this ringing endorsement of the communications strategy company Maslansky Luntz + Partners:

“It’s one thing to have a vendor, it’s another to have a partner. And from the executive staff to the whole team, they’re really committed to us and what we’re trying to do,” Laura Bowling, SVP, Strategic Marketing + Global Communications, Conservation International

Beyond the slightly smarmy logrolling, anybody else catch what’s so stunning about a veep at one of the world’s largest environmental groups heaping praise this particular marketing firm?

Climate change is driving many amphibians toward extinction. Click on photo to learn more.

That would be Maslansky LUNTZ, as in Republican strategist Frank Luntz, author of the infamous 2002 memo outlining how Republicans could obstruct the enactment of climate legislation without appearing unsympathetic to environmental issues. He counseled them to raise doubts about climate science. Looking back nearly a decade later, that advice has proven its effectiveness.

It has, however, forever linked Luntz + company to climate change denial, which in turn raises certain questions about whether a firm he founded could really be committed to Conservation International’s mission. By now, you may also be asking yourself why an environmental organization would hire the firm owned by a chief architect of climate change denial?

This may seem counterintuitive but environmentalists work with corporations (and their marketing firms) all the time these days. Corporations don’t just bankroll many of the largest environmental groups, Fortune 500 executives sit on their boards and run these organizations. And there’s loads of cross over between the business and nonprofit worlds. Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy is a former Goldman Sachs executive. He’s the latest in a long line of corporate bigwigs to helm that organization.

Bowling also had a 20-year corporate career before joining CI. Might that be why she either didn’t know she was – or didn’t mind – teaming up with marketers of climate change denial? According to her bio, she worked for both agencies and corporations including Procter & Gamble, Ogilvy & Mather, The Walt Disney Company, and Vivendi/Universal.

One thing does surprise me though: It’s been a couple of years since Bowling left CI and returned to the private sector. You’d think a crack communications firm like Maslansky Luntz + Partners would be on top of that stuff and keep their site updated.

Check out my new website, articles

Dear Readers,

I finally got around to setting up a website, www.christinemacdonald.info. Please come visit for news and information about my book and my latest journalistic work. Right now, you’ll find links to do new packages of stories on corporate sustainability published this month in E Magazine and Miller-McCune Magazine.

Should Enviro Leaders Make More Than 99% of Us?

To prepare for my talk at the De-growth Vancouver conference, I updated this chart showing the salaries and benefits of some of the world’s top environmentalists. They each earn so much that they fall into a very exclusive tax bracket — the top one percent of U.S. taxpayers. Let me say that again: They earn more than 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers!

On Friday afternoon, I’ll be talking about the corporate funding from oil and gas, mining, logging, and consumer goods companies that helps fund these generous pay scales and how dependence on corporate cash threatens the groups’ credibility and weakens the environmental movement.

CI Official Caught Offering to “Green” Arms Dealer’s Rep

The U.K. website, The Ecologist, has posted a video exposing a Conservation International official offering her group’s public relations services to a big arms dealer. According to the Ecologist story, the undercover video was shot by producers at the online magazine, Don’t Panic. They posed as Lockheed Martin executives in a meeting with a person they describe as a senior CI official. The phony corporate executives dangled a hefty donation in exchange for helping the weapons maker link its brand name with saving endangered species.

The sting is the latest in a wave of recent corporate impersonations, an activist genre pioneered by The Yes Men that usually involves spoof websites, fake corporate executives and meetings in swank surroundings. From conservative filmmaker James OKeefe, who embarrassed National Public Radio earlier this year by posing as a potential donors from the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Men’s new Yes Lab, impersonations are fashionable among guerilla activists and vidoemakers.

Of course, it’s no secret that CI and its chief rivals such as The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund get lots of funding from polluting corporations — even arms dealers. These corporate ties were a major part of my 2008 book, “Green, Inc.,” which the video producers allude to in passing.

In fact, it’s not that surprising that CI was eager to sign up Lockheed as a corporate sponsor; The Conservancy has already taken money form the arms giant. CI has funding ties to B-2 bomber maker, Northrup Grumman, and Northrup’s President and CEO, Wes Bush, sits on CI’s board of directors.

The nature of corporate power over environmental groups

Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Rules of Power” and I discuss why environmental groups get little out of their dealings with corporate polluters on the “Tierra Verde” radio show today. We taped the half-hour discussion last night. Greene had some interesting insights into the “soft power” approach corporations have used over the last three decades to co-opt the movement. The show airs today at 1 pm PST (4 pm EST) on KPFA 94.1 FM in Berkeley, Calif.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 646 other followers