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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

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.

Berlin by Bike

Bikers at Brandonburg Gate

It’s day-four of my unexpected extended stay in Berlin. I’m one of reportedly millions of stranded travelers waiting for the skies to clear of volcanic ash. While the upper atmosphere may be a mess of sand, glass and whatever else an Icelandic volcano can spew, the weather down here is perfectly lovely. Last week, when I was officially working as part of a journalism tour of green building and architecture in Germany, every day seemed to be colder, rainier and more dreary than the next. As if timed to coincide with our forced vacation, the skies have lighted and spring is in the air – perfect for biking. And I’ve been doing a lot of it. While the subway system – or U Ban – is excellent here, I’ve opted to the peddling life of millions of Berliners.

My new friends, Lauren Browne and Charles Redell, rented bikes at the city’s central train station, the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, Sunday and rode all the way to the airport to rebook our flights. It’s about a 5 mile ride, nearly entirely on bike paths. If it weren’t for my unwieldly suitcase, I would would be tempted ride my rent-a-bike to catch my flight on Thursday (hopefully…) It might sound like one of those harrowing experiences in which you take your life in your hands, dodging and weaving through traffic. But nothing of the sort. I didn’t feel my life threatened once during the trip out there through Berlin’s stately cityscape, peddling along bike paths that aren’t the kind of here now, gone next block afterthought you find in Washington.

The DB “Call a Bike” service we used, is sort of like Zip Car for bikes or a higher-tech, touristy version of the District’s new bike share program. Each bike comes with a electronic locking system. We simply left our bikes outside the hotel overnight. I was almost surprised to find them still there in the morning. Now, on the third day of the rental, I found myself checking again to make sure the big red and white tank of bicycle is still there. It is! Another great feature is that once your done renting the bike,  you just drop it off outside a subway station and call a telephone number to report where you left it. It’s 9 Euro a day or 36 Euro a week, which is on par with the cost of sightseeing by subway and a whole lot cheaper than bus tours or taxis. Besides it’s a wonderful way to see the city, soak up a little local color and get some exercise.

The romance of biking

Everyone seems to bike here. While you do see a few people in those tight little numbers that so many Washington bikers don even for the most mundane commute to the office, I’ve also seen the old and the very young. One portly old gentleman in a tweedy suit and cap crossing a throughoutfare. An younger guy with his dog on a leash – talk about multitasking! Biking and walking the dog – Cool. Another lady had a sort of a tricycle with a wagonback. Inside her two dashhounds. Every now and then, she’d reach back and give one of them a pat on the head. (Charlie has a photo of this lady in one of his blog posts.)

According to the German government: “About 80 per cent of people in Germany own a bicycle which makes a total of around 73 million bikes which are being used more and more frequently.” That compares to about 27 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 16  – about 57 million people – according to a 2002 survey , cited by Bicyclinginfo.org.The subway trains have separate cars reserved for people with bikes. The bike paths are beautifully integrated into the cityscape. Sometimes you ride in a specifically designated bike lane on the street, sometimes the lane moves up onto the spacious sidewalks. I haven’t seen any mishaps with pedestrians. Everyone seems to have enough room. Though there is so much bicycle traffic that it is important to ride like you drive, remembering others are behind you or may be turning from side streets. There are even special traffic lights for bikes! It’s not a perfect system. You still have scofflaws, for instance. I did seen a few daredevils running the lights.

Berlin’s neighborhoods are full of little cafes and shops of all types. Perhaps another byproduct of a culture – unlike ours – that doesn’t revolve around the car. If you are on your feet or on your bike, you are probably more likely to do your shopping on your street or one nearby, anyway, rather than trekking out to Costco or a Wal-Mart superstore. I wonder if there are any studies or statistics on that? Anybody know?

(By the way, the green building tour that brought me to Germany was quite interesting; We visited, among other things, loads of “passive homes” – houses, coop-style buildings and schools that take extraordinarily little energy to heat, cool and light.  I’m getting around to telling you about that, but the drama – and fun – of being a volcano refugee has distracted me. I’ll get back to that soon, though, promise.)

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