Category Archives: greenwash

New documentary highlights growing risks to whistleblowers

Courtesy of the filmmakers

Earlier this week, my friend Tom Devine invited me to a special screening of the new documentary, “War on Whistleblowers,” at the Newsmuseum. Tom is the legal director at the Government Accountability Project, a group that has represented hundreds of people in over the last few decades who have exposed criminal behavior and other wrong-doing by their employers, often at great personal cost.

The 1-hour program doesn’t include cases of environmental malfeasants but Tom can be heard in voiceover at the start of the film talking about the persecution faced by historic figures like Copernicus and Galileo for pointing out truths that seem so obvious to us today–such things as the fact that world really isn’t flat. While those two Renaissance-era gentleman may have risked even more, the ire they evoked for speaking truth to power seem generally similar to the attacks weathered by Michael Mann and other scientists for sounding alarm bells about climate change.

The film also touches on another topic that comes up frequently on this blog: how corporations that partner with public entities tend to call the shots in those relationships, often at the detriment of the public good.

The film interviews Franz Gayl, a Pentagon science adviser for the Marine Corp who blew the lid off the Marine’s failure to provide troops in Iraq with life-saving armored vehicles. The backstory: the corporate lobbying power behind the Humvee was simply greater than that of the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, though the MRAPs, as they are called, have proven much safer. The program also features Michael DeKort, a Lockheed Martin project manager who exposed design and other failures in a new fleet of ships for the U.S. Coast Guard; he fear he problems could lead to avoidable deaths at sea. Both men first tried to bring their concerns to the companies and government agencies involved before going public. DeKort ended up out of a job and Gayl nearly suffered the same fate until a public campaign drew national attention to his plight.

That scenario — in which corporate interests and profit margins trump other concerns, even loss of life — is one that plays out in the corporate sustainability realm, as well. Many of the world’s largest corporations have  struck up partnerships and sponsorship deals with environmental groups. The millions of dollars big companies channel to environmental organizations each year amount to a tiny fraction of their revenues (much less than they spend, say, on advertising), but it’s an increasingly large part of the annual operating budgets of many nonprofit groups. The cash not only buys the companies invaluable greenwash cover, it has misdirected some of the world’s largest and most respected environmental groups from their original mission, turning them into corporate mascots instead of the watchdogs of public good. If you want details, read my book or check out the articles on this site’s “about” page.

But getting back to the whistleblower documentary, the very cool thing is this: The producers will send you a copy for free so that people around the country can hold house parties and otherwise share with friends and neighbors. Click here for the details.

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.

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

WWF ally named in “massive” illegal logging scandal

Orangutan photo by Barefoot in Florida. Creative commons license.

UPDATE: I messaged WWF asking for comment + will post a response when I hear back.

A longtime ally of WWF has been implicated in a “massive illegal logging kickback scandal” inside one of the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. What’s more, the official, Musa Aman, Chief Minister of Malaysia’s Sabah region, is accused of making a fortune off of the same endangered orangutan habitat that he promised to protect.

Over the last several years, WWF has broadcast its partnerships with Aman’s Sabah government to protect the Borneo forest (home to the orangutans) and expand region’s marine protected areas. Aman even gave a keynote speech at WWF’s Asian green business conference last November. And Datuk Dr Dionysius S.K. Sharma, WWF Malaysia chief executive officer, has praised Aman’s “visionary leadership” for “walking the talk” of nature conservation.

“Sustainable development will determine if we get to keep this planet, and Sabah, with the leadership that it has, will be able to keep this part of the world intact,” Dionysius told a Malaysia newspaper last December.

WWF, however, has remained mum on the scandal that erupted this spring after a Malaysian activist group published documents allegedly leaked from two police investigations. The evidence compiled by anti-corruption units in Malaysia and Hong Kong included copies of bank records allegedly showing how an accomplice moved money from timber companies into a secret Swiss bank account held in trust for Aman.

The story is yet another dredged up by the daily news search created by the folks at Wiki Scraper. (Click on the link to check it out!)

WWF and other nature groups often court power brokers like Aman — relationships that have helped expand national parks and forests worldwide in recent decades. But corruption, weak rule of law, lack of funding, and other problems often leave these new wildlife preserves “protected” on paper only. The nonprofit groups, meanwhile, have lost credibility and local support by partnering with corrupt politicians, autocratic regimes and polluting corporations.

Previous Wiki Scraper finds include this piece alleging that staffers at my former employer, Conservation International, were directly involved in illegally felling trees inside a Vietnam nature preserve. (CI has denied the allegation and reportedly plans its own investigation.)

The recent scandals are just the latest reminder of the growing “reputational” travails facing international conservation groups, also known as BINGOs (big international nonprofit organizations). As controversies in remote rainforests start to reach their Western supporters, WWF, C.I., The Nature Conservancy and other groups are writing more people-friendly mission statements and policies. However, not everyone under the “environmentalists” umbrella buys the re-branding efforts; in fact, they’ve sparked a new round of debate over the direction of the movement.

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

Climate Change: Are we also the 99%

The GreenAccord conference took place last week.

I got back late last night from the GreenAccord environmental conference in Italy, an annual gathering that brings together journalists from around the globe with some of the foremost experts on climate change and the many interconnected environmental problems threatening human – and planetary – health.
The conference has always emphasized environmental justice, a focus made even richer by the large contingent of reporters from developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where some of the worst impacts of climate change are expected and have, indeed, begun. This year, however, the political dimensions of the climate debate were in even starker relief.  Several speakers suggested that the world’s elites are insulating themselves from the worst aspects of global warming. There were shades of the Occupy movement with its assertions that the world’s wealthiest 1 percent are ruining the world for the rest of us.

Resource economist William Rees argued that we’re already seeing the beginnings of “eco apartheid” as wealthy individuals, corporations and entire governments scramble to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits and other dwindling resources, while blocking climate responses that threaten their wealth. Robert Engelman, the new executive director at of the environmental think tank, Worldwatch Institute, expressed similar views. Meanwhile Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, of the World Social Forum, advocated dumping our corporate-dominated economy for one based on solidarity. He discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace currency with a system of credits that would essentially allow people to barter for goods and services.

As soon as I shake off the jet lag, I must start writing an article that will discuss some of these ideas in more detail. Stay tuned!

While I was away, my story on the economy of food trucks posted to The Atlantic magazine’s “Cities” website. While off subject for those focused solely on environmental issues, it’s an interesting tale of how, even in a sputtering economy, agile entrepreneurs can find a path forward. Perhaps there is a more universal take-away there? You can find the story here.

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.