In Green Inc., Christine MacDonald Explores Seamy Underside of Green Non-Profit World

Like all industries, the non-profit sector has its fair share of pockmarks and blemishes. Yet while it seems easy to take unflattering insider accounts from certain industries -- say, the energy and chemicals industries -- at face value, it is much more difficult to fully accept the criticisms made of environmental non-profits like The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, many of which some of us have either worked with or volunteered for in the past.

In Green, Inc., though, veteran journalist Christine MacDonald manages to craft a damning account of the green non-profit world that is both believable and even-handed. Having worked at one of the world's largest environmental groups, Conservation International, until fairly recently (in their public relations department, no less), MacDonald had a bird's-eye view of some of the industry's clubby practices and suspect dealings and minces no words in going after its shady corporate partnerships, lavish pay packages and other unsightly aspects. As some reviews have noted, MacDonald's book suffers in parts from a lack of nuance: While it is certainly true that corporate associations often raise (very) valid ethical and financial questions, they can, in some cases, guide meaningful progress in the business community -- a point that sometimes feels lost in her overarching narrative. Several of the stories she recounts, including The Nature Conservancy's ethical lapses and run-ins with the IRS and the Sierra Club's endorsement of a Clorox product, may seem a little rehashed given how much attention they have already received over the last few years.

On the whole, MacDonald's critique makes for a fascinating read and is well worth checking out if you're interested in learning how some of the largest groups were formed and how they operate. The stories she tells of some of the corporate partnerships gone (terribly) bad, and their impacts on the developing world's environment, are particularly noteworthy for those of us who don't pay nearly enough attention to the oft insurmountable challenges smaller organizations in these countries face. I recently had the chance to talk to Christine MacDonald about her book and her thoughts on how to reform the industry's failed practices:

TreeHugger: What motivated you to write this book?

Christine MacDonald: I had the opportunity to work at one of the preeminent environmental groups in the world, Conservation International. And the gross mismanagement and wastefulness I saw there troubled me. When I learned these practices were not exclusive to CI, I felt I had a responsibility to speak up and get these issues out in the open. I hope this book helps to start a debate on how to reform these organizations so they can be more effective.

TH: What was it that finally convinced you to leave the environmental
non-profit world?

CMD: After I was laid off in a division-wide reorganization at CI, my friends and former colleagues were wonderful in their attempts to help me network and find another job in an environmental group. But when I started to research the inner workings of other groups such as World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, I realized that the excesses and questionable corporate liaisons I witnessed at CI were commonplace. I realized I couldn't go work for one of these other groups.

But I still felt very strongly that I wanted to work to improve our environment. When I was laid off, I sort of felt like I was out of a job but there was still plenty of work to do. That's when I decided I could make more of a contribution by writing this book and trying to start a debate about how to restore accountability at these groups.

TH: What type of response has your book received from your former co-workers and these groups?

CMD: While the leaders of the organizations are unhappy, I've received a good amount of support from the rank and file. People have quietly told me they're proud of me and that the allegations I make public in the book are long overdue. Many are surprise a book like this wasn't written before now. They are glad these questions are finally being raised.

(And, check out this comment left on the site California Literary Review that interviewed me earlier this month:

Rini Sucahyo Says:
October 7th, 2008 at 5:03 am
I am currently the External Relations Coordinator for Conservation International - Indonesia.
I don't have a long comment here, except that : EVERYTHING YES, EVERYTHING that Christine wrote in her book is RIGHT.
In Indonesia, funds are also drawn from the country's TOP polluters, namely Bumi Resources and Medco, among others. And just as Rob Walton of Walmart is on the board of CI, Arifin Panigoro of Medco is on the board of CI-Indonesia.
I'm so relieved that FINALLY.. someone from the inside speaks about this.. Thank you Christine Will follow your footsteps!

TH: How do you respond to critics who accuse you of practicing guilt by association journalism? Do you think all major non-profits should refuse to accept donations from large corporations?

CMD: I have been criticized for writing this book and that's good. I accept it, as long as it helps to get this discussion started. But once the critics finish questioning my motives, they need to move on and examine the questions I raise. These groups advocate for preserving resources for the future, but they operate in wasteful and unaccountable ways. We need more accountability or these groups are going to lose all credibility.

As for whether they should take corporate donations, there may not be just one model. It may be possible for groups to take "no strings attached" contributions from some companies without losing their independence. However, time and again, groups get into trouble when they allow their boards of directors to be dominated by corporate executives and open the doors to lucrative endorsements and other partnerships with companies.

There is nothing wrong with corporate "greening." In fact, it's an encouraging sign that companies are now rushing to portray themselves as stewards of the environment. But polluters have a tradition of silencing critics, as well. When corporations give big donations to corporations, does the money amount to a bribe? That's a real concern that we shouldn't lose sight of amid all the hype about corporate greening.

TH: How has new public interest in climate change and renewable energy
changed the green non-profit industry, if anything? Do you think it has led to more examples of "greenwashing"?

CMD: The mainstreaming of public concern about climate change has brought us great opportunities and risks. As more companies embrace of a greener economy, we could be on the cusp of major changes to how our economy works. But if greenwashing is allowed to pass for corporate greening, people are quickly going to become disillusioned. We could lose this historic opportunity to address the enormous environmental problems facing us.

Greenwashing does appear to be on the rise. The Federal Trade Commission, for instance, signaled its concern by launching a review green advertising claims this year, one year ahead of schedule.

In the rush to meet customer expectations, corporations have enlisted nonprofit groups to help sell their products. This trend is very dangerous for the nonprofits. They risk their reputations and the public trust when they take cash to back dubious or untested claims. Many of the marketing agreements — such as the Sierra Club's endorsement deal with Clorox Co. — are not subject to any product testing or comparisons.

Sierra Club, for instance, didn't do any testing to find out Clorox's line of environmentally-friendly household cleaners are better than other products on the market before agreeing to Clorox's offer. The fact that the Sierra Club is receiving an undisclosed amount of money for lending out its logo has cause controversy inside the organization. Watchdogs such as the Consumers Union have charged Sierra Club with conflict of interest.

Such deals come with big risks for the entire environmental movement. Groups that operate in unaccountable ways are jeopardizing their "brands" as trusted nonprofits. And, if people lose faith in the best-known groups, what's to stop them from losing faith in the entire movement?

TH: You spend a good amount of time criticizing environmental groups for abetting the efforts of major energy conglomerates in violating countries' environmental laws. Is this still a common practice or have green groups largely broken these ties?

CMD: These groups continue to partner with energy conglomerates, despite ongoing environmental and human rights disputes against the companies. One example is Shell Oil Co., which has faced long-running international condemnation of its operations in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta. But the controversy has never prompted CI, TNC and CF to stop working with and receiving funding from Shell.

Just last month, Friends of the Earth Nigeria condemned Shell, alleging the oil company's complicity in the arrests of a group of activists and journalists who had gathered for a Sept. 2nd community forum to protests Shell's gas flaring in the Delta town of Iwherekan. In 2005, the Nigerian High Court ordered Shell to stop the practice by April of last year, ruling that it violates the constitutional "rights to life and dignity."

On its website, Shell Nigeria says it had made some progress in upgrading equipment to reduce flaring but the work has stalled due to lack of funding and escalating civil unrest. Despite the court order, Shell continues gas flaring in Nigeria. The country is one of the world's top gas flaring countries, according to the World Bank. Gas flaring is a safety method drillers use to burn off excess gas and avert accidents. But the practice is a major contributor to global warming and has been linked to a myriad of sometimes-fatal health problems from asthma to cancer.

You may think of similar cases in the past tense because three that are wending through US courts right now have taken years to get here. In Washington, D.C., ExxonMobil is facing a lawsuit alleging its liability for kidnappings, torture and murders committed by Indonesian soldiers guarding its natural gas refinery in Aceh province. Chevron Corp. and Occidental Petroleum, meanwhile, are facing trials in federal court in San Francisco. All three of those oil companies are also generous donors to environmental groups.

TH: Can you give me an example, or several examples, of non-profit groups that you consider to be well-run and uninfluenced by corporate interests?

CMD: I'd rather not make recommendations. But I can tell you that there are about 12,000 environmental groups in the country — large and small; corporate watchdogs and corporate lapdogs. Their sources of funding are a matter of public record. The information is usually available on their websites or at the charity watchdog site Guidestar. Besides looking at funding streams, it's always good to check out a group's track record, the projects they've done and who's on the board of directors.

Giving money to environmental groups is not the only way to work for a healthier planet. In my book I urge people to call, write and email retailers and get to know the manager at the local supermarket. Ask where the merchandise comes from, how it was made and what environmental sustainability policies the company has in place. I've already started doing this.

And I can tell you it's slow going. Emailing corporate customer relations with environmental queries has netted me vague platitudes about their commitment to environmental protection or no response at all, in some cases. But if enough of us start asking these questions, retailers will feel the need to respond just as corporations have rushed to improve their energy efficiency and roll out "green" products in response to public concern about global warming.

TH: You focus a lot of attention on non-profit executives' lavish pay packages and benefits. Assuming they are well-qualified for the job, and, more important, successful in advancing their organizations' mission, why do you think they shouldn't receive such large salaries?

CMD: The idea that environmental leaders should be able to support themselves and their families is one thing, making more than 99 percent of US taxpayers is another. Salaries of $350,000 to the mid-$800,000s are excessive. These groups are putting their reputations on the line to fund a lifestyle that is the antithesis of the movement's values.

TH: Where would you like to see the green non-profit world headed? How would you change the way organizations like the Sierra Club, Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy are run?

CMD: We need a strong and dependable environmental movement more than ever right now because we are facing huge challenges with global warming. But the groups I discuss in my book have lost their way. As the movement continues to grow and gain mainstream acceptance, it's crucial that these groups become more accountable and get back to the business of serving the public as watchdogs.

These groups hold a privileged place in U.S. society. They have tax-exempt status because of they are defined as institutions working for the public good. People expect them to live up to a high standard of conduct. Refusing all corporate donations is one way to safeguard the mission though an outright ban on corporate cash may not be the only solution. In any event, conflict of interest rules need to written and enforced before the public loses all faith in these nonprofits.

In the case of an organization like the Sierra Club, it's large and outspoken membership base could drive the process by letting the club's leadership know they demand changes and voting for board members who support reform. At other groups, change will be more difficult because it would have to come from senior leaders and their boards of directors — often dominated by corporate executives.

But if their operating practices caused enough outrage, it could hurt their ability to raise funds, even from corporations. If they felt their funding sources were endangered they would likely feel compelled to address the concerns.

It is going to be a difficult conversation, but one that is long overdue in order to restore these groups accountability. Right now, we need strong and dependable environmental groups more than ever.

Tags: Greenwashing

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