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Make a deal with the devil: When Green Becomes Inc.

October 8, 2008, 12:54 PM

When Green Becomes Inc.

Green Inc.The author of a new book argues that the biggest conservation organizations are compromised by corporate dollars. (Photo: Lyons)

There was little chance that the release of a new book sharing our name — “Green Inc.” — would escape our attention, but the attending charges in Christine MacDonald’s new tome, titled “Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad,” were likely to pique our interest regardless.

Ms. MacDonald, a freelance journalist who left the field in 2006 to work in the communications division of Conservation International, one of the largest conservation organizations on the planet, was, by her own description, quickly disillusioned by wanton nepotism, executive salary bloat, and an all-too-cozy relationship with corporate donors.

When her position at Conservation International was eliminated within one year, Ms. MacDonald decided to mine her disillusionment and uncover reasons for it elsewhere within the “business” of environmentalism. “Green, Inc.,” which was officially released last month by Lyons Press, is the result of that journey.

In detailing the salaries and other compensation enjoyed by some of the environmental movement’s chief executives (she reports that Steven E. Sanderson, the head of the Wildlife Conservation Society, collected $825,000 for his efforts in 2006; Peter Seligmann, president of C.I., drew a modest $391,000 in 2005), Ms. MacDonald suggests that big bucks transform these leaders — and their organizations — into mere stewards of their corporate benefactors.

From the book:

Why must conservation leaders make more than 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers? Once they get used to such lavish pay, doesn’t it follow that fundraising — to keep those salaries coming — would trump their core mission?

Those compromised missions, Ms. MacDonald argues, find their fullest expression when corporate donors — from energy and car companies like B.P., Exxon Mobil and G.M. to retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot — are able to maintain the allegiance, or at least the silence, of environmental organizations, even as those businesses pursue separate agendas that contribute to climate change, deforestation and other environmental sins.

Although there is change afoot in the corporate world, it appears propelled by concern about consumer views and pressure from activists groups and shareholders. If anything, the big conservation organizations seem more like “enablers” that are slowing down the corporate awakening to environmental and social responsibilities by providing the companies with easy ways to appear green without making significant changes.

Not everyone is convinced by Ms. MacDonald’s thesis.

Reviewing “Green, Inc.” for the conservation Web journal Grist, Mark Pawlosky, a digital media consultant and former executive editor of the site,writes that “MacDonald wants the reader to accept her premise that the environmental movement has been irreparably corrupted merely because of corporate partnerships — i.e., guilt by association. The author is unable to see any value in conservation groups embracing such alliances in a bid to steer environmental policies within the business community.”

I met Ms. MacDonald on Monday in Washington, where it became clear that she is sensitive to the criticism. Not all of the nearly 12,000 environmental groups at work in the United States are suspect, she said. And her critiques, she said, are aimed not at the thousands of scientists and conservationists making up the rank-and-file within the biggest conservation organizations, but at the leadership.

“What I saw was a lot of gross mismanagement and wasteful spending going on for questionable ends with these corporate sponsors,” Ms. MacDonald said, “and that was really troubling to me.”

Bitterness, she added, was not a factor in her exposé.

“I’m not angry,” Ms. MacDonald said. “This isn’t an angry book, this is a truth-telling book. This is a book that tries to shed some light on some issues that have been around for a while now, and really need to be discussed. And I’m hoping this will spark a debate about how to reform the movement and make it more effective, because we really need our environmental groups right now, with the challenges of global warming and all the other interrelated environmental issues that we’re facing.”

We emailed some questions to Ms. MacDonald. Her answers, as well as the questions, follow.


Your central charge here seems to be that the executives at the top of the conservation “business” have become too cozy with, and dependent for donations from, industries with lousy track records on the environment and climate change. How, though, does that undermine the work that these conservation organizations do?

Christine MacDonaldChristine MacDonald, author of “Green, Inc.” (Photo: Tom Zeller Jr.)

In example after example, groups that get too close to corporations lose their ability to be critical. To some extent it might be human nature – the nonprofit leaders develop friendships with corporate leaders and don’t want to criticize their friends. On another level it’s practical – organizations that become dependent on corporate dollars to pay for programs and salaries don’t want to risk losing the funding.

Take the case of B.P. The British petroleum company has given money to many environmental groups and spent even more on its “Beyond Petroleum” advertising campaign extolling itself as a leader in developing solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. Last year, however, it spent 16 times as much on oil and gas exploration and development as it did on all of its eco-friendly initiatives combined.

While it may not really qualify as a “green corporation,” B.P.’s donations to green groups came in handy after the company had the country’s most deadly refinery accident, the biggest pipeline rupture and was charged with illegally cornering the United States propane market in the mid-2000s. B.P. paid millions of dollars to settle felony charges with the Justice Department over the pipeline rupture alone and remains on probation until 2010. Federal investigators excoriated the company for failing to conduct routine maintenance that could have prevented the refinery explosion and the massive oil spill. But there was no public outrage from the environmental groups that had received B.P.’s donations.

Environmental Defense Fund’s partnership with Federal Express offers another example. E.D. has a corporation donation policy that bars it from taking money from companies like FedEx. But the group has built a reputation for helping corporations reduce their environmental impacts. In 2000, E.D. and FedEx teamed up to develop a hybrid truck.

The project has been hailed as “revolutionary.” The truck’s design won awards and FedEx said it hoped to roll out 30,000 by 2013. After eight years, FedEx has 170 hybrids on the road. That sounds impressive as long as you don’t compare it to the size of FedEx’s fleet – 80,000 ground vehicles plus hundreds of aircrafts. Today hybrids represent less than 1 percent of FedEx’s ground fleet. But E.D. and FedEx continue to hold up this partnership as a success story. E.D. has never publicly taken its partner to task for falling seriously behind on its commitment.

Related question: Is this sort of a necessary evil? Make a deal with the devil in order to pursue a greater good? If so, what’s wrong with that, and if not, why not?

There is nothing wrong with corporations acquiring an environmental ethos. But it’s important to remember that polluters have a long tradition of silencing their critics. That’s a real concern. Every time a corporation gives a big donation to an environmental group, we have to guard against the possibility that it’s a bribe; that the company is giving the money to co-opt the group and weaken its mission.

You concede that even the worst industry offenders have been making incremental changes in their own practices — though far less than they COULD do. Is incremental change better than no change at all?

I have heard that argument espoused by conservationists in the groups I discuss in my book. However there is plenty of evidence that companies respond both to government regulation and activists campaigns that jeopardize their reputations. In Europe, where carbon emission limits are already in place, companies are moving quickly to reduce the amount of climate changing greenhouse gases they spew into the atmosphere.

In this country, where emissions curbs remain voluntary, companies are lagging behind. For instance, when the Carbon Disclosure Project surveyed 1,550 of the world’s largest corporations, 74 percent reported that they had already set emissions reductions targets, according to C.D.P.’s report issued last month. Of the U.S. companies that responded, only about a third have made similar commitments. So, government regulations appear to play a role in prodding corporations to make significant operational changes.

The stick seems to work more effectively than the carrot when it comes to corporate interaction with nonprofit environmental groups, as well. Home Depot, for instance, quickly removed wood products from its stores after the Environmental Investigative Agency issued a report linking the merchandise to illegal logging. And, after years of being targeted by confrontational groups such as E.I.A. and Rainforest Action Network, the home improvement store audited its entire wood supply and set up a system track every product.

According to the company, it can now assure customers that none of Home Depot’s lumber was stolen from a rain forest or some other endangered ecosystem, an achievement that has cast doubt on claims by Ikea. The Home furnishing retailer, a “cause related marketing” partner of World Wildlife Fund, says its long-term goal is to buy only wood from forests certified as responsibly managed. But Thomas Bergmark, Ikea’s chief of social and environmental affairs, stated publicly last year that the company couldn’t guarantee that its products are not made from illegally logged wood.

Similarly, Greenpeace’s campaign against international grain traders Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Ltd. and Cargill led to a moratorium on buying soybeans from recently deforested Amazon lands. The agreement overshadowed roundtable negotiations between the grain traders and nonprofits, including W.W.F., The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International, to establish a certification process for “sustainable soy.” Those controversial talks have dragged on for years but have yet to lead to an agreement.

You go to great lengths in your book to distinguish, within the conservation game, between those in the rank-and-file and those at the top — but is there some part of you that feels even the rank-and-file should be speaking up about these issues? Are they, in maintaining silence in order to protect their own jobs, complicit in all this?

It’s true; the rank-and-file could quit in protest. And I have spoken with several scientists who have left these organizations after growing disillusioned. But many of them still wouldn’t talk on the record because the three big conservation groups – C.I., T.N.C. and W.W.F. – control so much of the international funding for this work. While they were candid in private conversation, they were refused to speak publicly for fear of losing a piece of the millions of dollars in conservation work these groups subcontract every year.

That’s one level of complicity. Then, there are a number of people who view their jobs in these organizations as a step in their career ladder. The environment movement has become a big business with big budgets and big salaries and plush benefits. As it has become a great place to work, the movement has increasingly attracted careerists rather than what Bill Turnage, the former president of the Wilderness Society, calls “warriors.”

In my book, I quote Turnage, who told me: “We need a few leaders who aren’t careerists. People who aren’t worried about where they are going to get their next job, who just say, ‘I’m going to give this my all and when I’m done, I’m done.”

As these groups have become professional organizations that ethos has diminished.

Of the solutions you envision, what are those that might be done most immediately — and how likely are these corrections to occur?

Change is difficult but not impossible. Because of the way these groups are run, change would have to come from the top – from the senior leadership and their boards of directors that often stacked with corporate executives.

But if the reputation and funding sources of these groups were endangered, this could prompt reforms. That’s why it’s important for members of these groups to get the ball rolling by letting the leadership know they demand more accountability. Without more accountability these groups risk losing all credibility.

Even the corporations that today give them millions of dollars will become less interested if their “brands,” as trusted nonprofit groups, become tarnished. It is certainly going to be a difficult conversation, but one that is long overdue and critical to restoring a strong environmental movement. We need a strong movement more than ever given the daunting challenges of global warming and many other interrelated environmental issues we are facing.

What sort of cooperation did you get from both sides — conservation and industry — in pursuing the book? And on a related note, what are you hearing from them now?

As I touched on earlier, most people in the conservation movement would only talk to me off the record, although people were much more open about the history of the movement and the storied pasts of these groups. The companies I contacted were pretty wary.

But, luckily, most large corporations produce environmental sustainability reports and other documents and brochures detailing their efforts to act as “responsible corporate citizens.” These documents helped me understand the projects the companies fund, and what motivated them to partner with conservation groups.

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