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.

Well, it turns out there’s no substitute for the tiresome “gathering” part of the job, Francis Irving, ScraperWiki’s CEO, explained. But then he most kindly wrote me a program that does at least part of the work! It searches Yahoo News pages for all possible enviro-corporate combinations and fetches stories  each day from newspapers, wire services and magazines, press release, and industry journals. While we’re still working out the kinks, it’s churned up several news items that I’ve been mulling over.

It’s an imperfect tool but after nearly two weeks of testing, it’s time for a launch. I’m thinking about turning it into a regular feature for this blog. Perhaps in the form of a greenwash meter along these lines:


5. Heavy Greenwash (egregiously bad for environment/good for corporate image or profits.)
4. Greenwash (bad for environment/good for corporate image or profits.)
3.  Light Greenwash (no real environmental gain/pandering to funders.)
2.  Benign (not harmful to the environment/helps corporate profits or image.)
1.  Win-win (good for environment and corporate profits and/or image)
0.  Selfless (a Mother Teresa-like commitment to doing the right thing without regard for potential benefits and sales or mitigating the public relations fallout from government consent decrees, criminal charges, or civil suits.)

Now let’s test out the meter on this story from the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Donations tied to swimsuit issue leaves TNC feeling exposed

The Nature Conservancy’s recent role in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue

“set off rounds of soul searching and criticism after news got out that the charity has embarked on a partnership to promote the swimsuit issue alongside the Gilt Groupe, a Web site that sells luxury goods, travel, and specially arranged events.”

Initial Thoughts: From the article, it appears that TNC employees and board members were outraged solely by the racy photo spread; In this age of carbon footprints and global warming, however, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t also opposition to shilling for a high-end retailer. Gilt exists to sell more merchandise so it’s easy to see why it wants to get closer to TNC’s well-heeled supporters. TNC, on the other hand, doesn’t get anything so core to its mission from the deal. All it gets is money though how much is not disclosed. Some of these so-called corporate “partnerships” yield pathetically small financial rewards for the nonprofits.

The story also holds this intriguing tidbit about the alleged architect of the deal, Geof Rochester, TNC’s chief marketing officer:

“Mr. Rochester joined the organization in July 2010. Before that, he was executive vice president for marketing at World Wrestling Entertainment and a marketing executive at Showtime Networks.”

Score: 3 – Light Greenwash
Details: The deal is predicated on the entirely un-environmental aim of selling Gilt products.

What do you think? The site is now open to debate. Please share your views.

PS — Special Thanks to Francis Irving, Scraper Wiki and the Data Derby organizers.


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 12, 2012, in Carbon footprint, Corporate Citizenship, Corporate Social Responsiblity, Corporate sponsorship, Environment, greenwash, sustainability. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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