Greenwash Of The Week: Sustainable Brands 2010.


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What do you get when a bunch of unsustainable companies pay a lot of money to become sponsors/attendees of an upcoming event called Sustainable Brands? You get a massive greenwashing event where “real” sustainable brands like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Interface Americas, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Living Homes, and the Environmental Defense Fund get mixed in with some the world’s most unsustainable companies and thus don’t get the real kudos they may deserve from us. So which companies will be attending/sponsoring a conference on sustainability but have no business being there? Let’s take a look at a few from the list…

Clorox – Makers of bleach, Liquid Plumber, Pine-Sol, and Tilex. Bleach production and use releases dioxin, furans and other organochlorines into the air, and studies have shown a relationship between dioxin exposure and cancer, birth defects, and developmental/reproductive disorders. Inhaling the fumes may lead to sore throat, cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath, along with fluid in the lungs, and ingesting household bleach can cause oral, esophageal and gastric burns as well as produce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Sure sounds like a “sustainable brand” to me. How about you?

Coca-Cola – I like Coke. I drink Coke occasionally. Coke tastes good. But the Coca-Cola brand is most definitely not a sustainable brand. They produce and sell Dasani bottled water, which is just filtered tap water in plastic bottles. Regular old tap water costs about $0.002 per gallon compared to the $0.89 to $8.26 per gallon charge for bottled water like this, while 88% of empty plastic water bottles in the United States are not recycled. The Container Recycling Institute says that plastic water bottles are disposed of (not recycled) at the rate of 30 million a day! Also, the production of the plastic (PET or polyethylene) bottles to meet our demand for bottled water takes the equivalent of about 17.6 million barrels of oil (not including transportation costs). That equals the amount of oil required to fuel more than one million vehicles in the U.S. each year. Around the world, bottling water uses about 2.7 million tons of plastic”¦each year. Add in the HFCS they use in their soda products and, well, you can just about remove the word sustainable from their brand.

Dow Chemical – You may remember last week’s Greenwash of the Week which involved these guys. They were sponsoring a Live Earth Run For Water in New York City and thought no one would notice. Responsible for such amazing products as the Agent Orange sprayed all over our troops and Vietnamese people in Vietnam and some major dioxin pollution in cities across the world (which still isn’t cleaned up and is being ignored by Dow), I guess they figure that by showing up at Sustainable Brands all will be forgiven. Not so fast, Dow. In Bhopal, India roughly 30,000 people are still drinking water contaminated with heavy metals and organochlorines; in North America Dow is responsible for dangerous dioxin contamination around its global headquarters in Midland, Michigan, vinyl chloride contamination in Louisiana, dioxin & furan contamination in Western Canada, and Dow toxins are poisoning people and ecosystems in Vietnam, South Africa, New Zealand, Brazil, and Central America. Sustainable? I think not.

Nestle – Another Greenwash of the Week veteran! As of late, Nestle has become the target of several anti-Nestle campaigns and stories. Why, you ask?

  • In Maine, Nestle has repeatedly sued (5 times and counting) the tiny rural town of Fryeburg – a clear attempt to litigate the tiny town into insolvency, winning the right to tap the local aquifer by default. Why? Because the town’s planning commission – and a majority of its citizens – said no to Nestle’s proposed 24/7 water pumping station (which returned little economic value to the town) and its accompanying traffic, noise, and pollution.

  • In Michigan, Nestle despite repeatedly proclaiming themselves good corporate neighbors who would never damage a watershed – were ordered to reduce pumping after courts repeatedly found Nestle was damaging a local watershed.

  • In 2008, The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT), led by Nobel peace prize winner, Adolfo Prez Esquivel, accused 43 companies present in Colombia of various human rights violations. The Tribunal, consisting of various international notables, made such accusations after almost three years of investigating allegations of human rights violations in Colombia. Among the companies accused of human rights violations are Coca Cola, Nestle, British Petroleum (BP) and Telefonica. The PPT also said the Colombian Government is equally responsible for the violation of human rights, “favoring capital over people’s lives. [16]

  • Canadian environmental groups have filed a misleading advertising complaint against Nestle disputing claims in an ad by the world’s largest food company that its bottled water has numerous ecological benefits.

  • Greenpeace has new evidence which shows that Nestle – the makers of Kit Kat – are using palm oil produced in areas where the orangutans’ rainforests once grew. Even worse, the company doesn’t seem to care.

Do I really need to go on about how Nestle is by no means a Sustainable Brand?

SC Johnson – Makers of Pledge, Ziploc, Off!, Glade, Raid, Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Drano. What a collection of sustainable products they have! I have featured them as a Greenwash of the Week before, Treehugger has added them to their Greenwash Watch series, and Seventh Generation wonders when Drano became “non-toxic and environmentally friendly”. A Sustainable Brand? I think not.

Wal-Mart – For my money, I have saved the best for last here. In fact, just yesterday it was announced that Wal-Mart is being fined $27.6 million dollars for environmental violations in California. What better timing than right before they head to a conference on being sustainable! The money is to settle charges that it violated California environmental laws by improperly handling, storing and disposing of hazardous materials such as pesticides, chemicals, paint, acid, aerosols, fertilizer and motor oil. Yummy. Last year they announced their “Sustainability Index“, of which CorpWatch said “It is an amazing act of chutzpah for Wal-Mart, which probably keeps more sweatshops in business than any other company, to claim moral authority to ask suppliers about the treatment of workers in their supply chain.” They have also been charged with countless human rights violations, gender discrimination, and the selling of non-organic food as organic in their stores. Wal-Mart Watch says that “Wal-Mart is so obsessed with being politically correct on the “sustainability” issue, that they tell you more about the printing of their annual report than the number of dead store eyesores they have left empty. Here is how Wal-Mart describes the print version of its Annual Report: “It is printed on FSC-certified responsibly forested paper containing recycled PCW fiber that is Elementally Chlorine Free (ECF). It is printed using 100% renewable wind power (RECs), along with environmental manufacturing principles that were utilized in the printing process.” The company claimed it saved “517 fewer trees consumed via recycling”. What Oscar Wilde said about cynics is true for Wal-Mart as well: Their sustainability counters know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”” Truly now, and be honest – does that sound like a company that should even be allowed anywhere near a conference on Sustainable Brands? At least one that wants to be taken seriously and not just look like corporate shills?

There are many, many more companies attending and/or paying for this conference that I probably should list here too – but I think you get the point. Sure, there will be plenty of companies in attendance who TRULY want to do the right thing, but I am afraid of them getting so covered in the greenwash that is the rest of these attendees that they won’t be very effective at getting out their message. If this conference wants to really be about sustainability, they wouldn’t allow these types of companies to attend, period. We need events like this that are really about what they say they are so they mean something. I am sure when these started they meant to do well, but by allowing corporations like the ones listed above to participate, it definitely dilutes the meaning. While spreading the word about this conference and its greenwashing attempts is absolutely necessary (and please help by sending this to all your green friends so they know about it), the best thing we can do is use our wallets to express our displeasure with companies like Clorox, Wal-Mart, and the others. Buy products that are actually sustainable and not just marketed as such through PR firms and “green” conferences. Shop at stores that treat their workers fairly. Purchase safer alternatives to everyday common toxic goods. And above all else, be aware of what you are being sold, both literally and figuratively.

Don’t fall for this kind of marketing of “sustainability” when much of it is anything but. Unchecked events like this only hurt the entire environmental movement by helping unworthy companies to sell toxic crap as “green” in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Photo from Shutterstock

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  1. You hit the nail right on the head, Danika. That’s been my point about these type of things for a long time – integrity and value is worth WAY more than any amount of money Walmart could pay me to attend an event of mine, if I were to have one. By allowing companies like this to participate, it devalues the meaning abd purpose of the entire conference.

  2. I plan green events, and finding money is always tough, but I won’t compromise my event by taking money from a company that’s contrary to my event’s goals. My integrity and the integrity of the event are compromised if I do. I fully believe that when you plan green events many attendees who don’t know as much about green living are trusting the organizers to vet out both the sponsors and the exhibitors to ensure they really are green. When the organizers don’t live up to that, you violate the trust of your attendees.

  3. I am always happy to hear when huge corporations take steps to become more environmentally caring but hate it when they do so while continuing horrible practices. They are able to much greater change, more quickly than they allow. They just don’t do so because of their belief that shareholders will pull out.

  4. Hello, David,
    Thanks so much for providing visibility to the fruits of my personal passion, and that of our team at Sustainable Life Media who produce the Sustainable Brands Conference.
    I noted from your mission statement that your goal is to “encourage people to be better humans through working to clean up the environment, being active in political issues and being more aware of one”™s life and surroundings.” You go on to state: “There are so many ways that we can all contribute to our existence here on Earth, and I found over time that mine was talking about environmentalism and sustainability issues with people who might only be just getting interested in “going green.” And that you “wanted The Good Human to be a place where people could learn about these types of things without being made to feel guilty or like they were not doing enough.”
    We share this goal 100%, David. We simply choose different communities to work with. You and I have traded tweets about this, but it appears from my perspective that where we are different is in our ability to see that there are people working in most every corporation in the world who are there because of a need for a job, or a desire to be in a certain market space, but who also have a passion as you and I do for helping transform business to be more sustainable.
    You and I, and your readers all know how hard it is to turn our own individual behavioral ships around — to change our personal behaviors as we learn more about the implications of them, to be perfectly aligned with our growing knowledge of the importance of that we do. I can’t imagine you cannot understand the magnitude of the complexity for a global corporation to do the same. I am a business person, a former executive of a multi-national, so perhaps I have more of an inside perspective on the realities of how hard it is, and how long it takes to turn a ship like this. I also have great personal experience with the heroic efforts of those people who do.
    While the challenge is enormous, business as an institution is uniquely equipped to have significant impact — to respond to customer demand with alacrity, creativity and efficiency. My goal has been, and continues to be, to help businesses large and small find the quickest path to innovate for sustainability, while maintaining one key piece of the three leg sustainability stool intact — economic stability. Happily, there are many drivers at work pushing business to change. And I will guarantee you that there is an authentic will inside the companies you mention – Clorox, SC Johnson, Wal-mart and others, to re-engineer themselves to do the right thing in response to their own increasing understanding of the impact they have on the world.
    The challenge, though, is that they can feel stuck to a degree, between a rock and a hard place. For businesses who are in existence to server customer and other stakeholder demands, require support from customers and other stakeholders to empower them. When customers buy more eco-friendly products, rather than the cheapest ones on the shelf, I guarantee you business will respond. They need NGOs working WITH them instead of against them to help them solve the many, many thorny systems challenges they face. They need support from media encouraging GOOD behavior and helping educate them about emerging best practices, rather than tearing them down and making them feel guilty for their imperfections.
    Organizations are like people — they often need both the carrot and the stick to stay on the straight and narrow. I believe we all have our own roles to play in helping drive the shift we both seek, and someone needs to be the watchdog. While I have a hard time understanding how you are not able to respect our mission that is 100% parallel to your own, perhaps it”™s as simple that we seek to serve two different roles. Perhaps you see yours as to meet out discipline, hold feet to the fire, whereas we see ours as to be a bridge to better brands ”“ to believe the best in those businesses who come to us looking to learn, to encourage, support and amplify ‘right behavior’ and to help them more quickly innovate in response to our multitude global challenges..
    If this is the case, I will certainly respect your right to the role you choose, but I would ask the same in return. And I would also suggest that if your desire is to help drive positive change in business, you might have greater impact were you to get to know some of the people behind the organizations you slander who are working tirelessly to try to right an industrial system — and a consumer base, frankly, that largely works against them.
    If you want to have real impact, lobby for a change in the public capital market systems that force public companies to compete on a quarter-by-quarter basis. I encourage you to look in to the work of Hazel Henderson at, Joseph Stiglitz and others, and help their effort to change the way economies are valued. Get your readers to invest in sustainable companies. I also encourage you to encourage your readers to reward companies who are trying to do the right thing by buying more eco-responsible products, even though they cost a bit more to produce.
    Why is it worth your time to reconsider your approach? Because your reader who commented just ahead of me is right: The impact that Wal-mart has with one tiny behavior change matches that of millions of us as individuals. I completely agree with you on the challenges of differentiating by price — and I will continue to fight hard to shine a light on the challenges of global supply chain inequities as many of our corporate constituents are also doing. At the same time, I guarantee you Wal-mart has had more impact on turning the tide of carbon emissions, both directly or indirectly, than all individuals combined, and likely more than any other organization on the planet. There are good, real people there, and at the other companies you name, who care about their families, who recycle and even compost, who volunteer in their communities, who support their families by working at a company where they also have the opportunity for influence — and they are having influence.

    None of us are perfect. Not you, nor I, nor any individual, nor any company. There is no sustainability company — not even the “good ones” in our community that you list above. We are all on a continuum. The one thing in common with all those in our community — whether EDF, PACT Underwear, and Seventh Generation, or Clorox, SC Johnson and Wal-Mart, is that they care about innovating for sustainability, and they are spending time and resources learning how to do so.
    Let me know if you’d like to learn more, and again, thanks for giving our event and our business visibility!

    1. Ah yes, but thankfully it’s not my org that is helping companies who greenwash, discriminate, pollute, and abuse human rights. Maybe just me, but no amount of money they could throw at me would include them on my site. Ethics are way more important than money. But to each their own, and you of course have every right to help them cover up their real activity if you see that as the right thing to do. I choose to expose them. In the meantime they will continue to do all the things listed in the article while spending big money on PR to make us all think otherwise.

  5. If they continued to eat all day, yes. Which is exactly what these companies do – pollute on one end while paying you for good PR, er, help.

    They attended your shindig last year too…what has changed since then for them? Nothing. Read the research I linked to in the article. Everything is status quo, but they get to say they attended “Sustainable Brands” and get a gold star from their board and the media.

  6. Thanks, again, David, buy you seem to continue to miss the point. These companies are paying us to learn, not to cover up. I assume you don’t deny, or lambast an obese person for seeking help in loosing weight — or am I wrong?

    1. These companies are well aware of the concerns, they certainly don’t need to be offered a greenwasher platform to discuss just how they can improve their standards or practices – they already know, how naive is KoAnn? This is clearly greenwashing of greenwashing and now KoAnn is spreading it globally too. David you are 100% correct with your observations and standpoint, I just wish these pseudo ‘greenies’ would wake up to the damage that they are doing.

  7. I think pointing them to the page of polluters, er, participants, is more fitting. Especially since that’s who pays the bill for the whole thing. As I have said before, people who truly care about the environment wouldn’t take money from gross polluters and abusers of human rights. But since you insist on avoiding that part of the equation/article every time you leave a comment, I am guessing it’s just not as important as the money is. To each their own, and looking forward to seeing the press releases from Clorox, et al, about how eco-friendly they are now that they attended “Sustainable Brands”… while they continue to destroy the planet and take advantage of the less fortunate.

  8. I’m sorry, but the name of your event is “Sustainable Brands” not “Greening Your Business.” You are actively and implying that these brands ARE sustainable and THAT is why they are giving you their money. If they want to learn or to green their business they will hire CSR people to do that for them. They are giving you their money so they can be identified as a “Sustainable Brand” without actually having to do anything about it.

    If they are trying to green their businesses, that’s great and I support them, but that has absolutely nothing to do with why they are giving you the large checks they are giving you. If you changed your event name to “Greening Your Business” or something similar I guarantee you would not receive the checks you have received.

    1. “I”™m sorry, but the name of your event is “Sustainable Brands” not “Greening Your Business.”” -BINGO. Thanks Danika, awesome.

  9. KoAnn says that businesses “…require support from customers and other stakeholders to empower them. When customers buy more eco-friendly products, rather than the cheapest ones on the shelf, I guarantee you business will respond.”

    KoAnn is right and this is exactly why I do not support Clorox, Dow, Nestle, Coke, SC Johnson, Wal-Mart and many other companies- because they are not sustainable.

    David- please keep on spreading the truth about companies that are destroying our beautiful and delicate planet. The better the masses are informed and opt to buy eco-friendly products, the better the chances these evil companies “will respond.”

    1. Will do Emec, someone has to show that some in the “green” world are willing to greenwash for toxic companies like these.

  10. What needs to happen is that these companies need to make big, real, and public moves to show that they are making concrete steps to become more sustainable; otherwise it’s just Marketing 101. I agree with David in that we simply aren’t seeing the improvements here — what we are seeing, generally speaking, are products that are marketed well but aren’t nearly as green as they would have the buyer believe. What we are also seeing are some companies that still short change their workforce and kill small businesses.

    What I want to see are results from these Sustainable Brands situations; I don’t expect results overnight but what I do expect are some drastic changes. There is no other way.

    What companies provide, people will buy. They only buy the cheap, toxic stuff because that’s what these companies make available to them. Offer products made in a more sustainable manner instead of the toxic stuff, and that’s what people will buy. No need to even market it as “green” or “sustainable” — just make it that way so that the Wal Mart hordes won’t even notice a difference. A slow change is simply too slow. It will take some sacrifices to do the right thing, and we all know that most corporations tend to favor money over doing the right thing.

    1. Great comment, Noah. Consumers can buy “the good stuff” now from companies who don’t pollute, discriminate, abuse human rights, or ignore the eco damage they have done (and continue to do) – and those are the ones we should be giving kudos too. Not Clorox, the makers of toxic soup.

  11. KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, I would like to see what exactly did these companies learn from you? You can’t teach by lowering your standards, that’s called selling out. How about sending a booklet with information on sustainability to these companies, and give them time to grow and change BEFORE you green-stamp them? In the meantime, you can support 100s of companies that are truly trying to be sustainable and struggling with their business, they could use some advertising!

  12. For whatever reason it may be, KoAnn is saying her comments aren’t making it through. So in the interest of fairness, here is the email telling me so, along with other info. Following that will be my response to her email. We want this to be as transparent as possible, as you guys deserve that, so I want KoAnn to be able to have a voice here, even if she thinks I am blocking her (which I am not and never would). Here goes.

    KoAnn: “Its unfortunate we can”™t have a polite and productive conversation about an issue we both care about.

    I posted on your site somewhere around 8:30 last night. The post included a link to our ”˜about us”™ page. You clearly read the post since you responded to it at 9:04 by saying you felt I should link instead to another page on our site. At some point, and either you, or someone else with admin access to your site both deleted that post, and blocked me as a spammer so I was unable to continue the conversation.

    Either you are not in control of your own website, or you are a liar. Either way, I find your choice to focus your energies on tearing down the earnest efforts of others to accomplish the same end goal incredibly disheartening. I am always happy to be in earnest debate, but I”™m not interested in being unfairly slammed without the opportunity to respond.

    If you choose to correct yourself and apologize on twitter, perhaps we can continue a healthy discussion, however I am much more interested in spending my time problem solve and helping others do the same, than throwing stones. You and Rush Limbaugh have certainly found a way to get an audience, but this is not about entertainment for me, and I would humbly suggest that you are doing nothing to solve the problem.”

    My (David) response to this:

    “Again, send your comment you want posted and I will gladly post it on the site. No problem at all. No one is ever blocked on the site, period. Nothing was deleted, nothing was moved, nothing. So please stop being so paranoid that I am out to stop you from writing a paragraph.

    My article, should you have actually read it (maybe you should again?), pointed out that you probably meant well when you started the organization and that many great companies will be attending. Somewhere along the line though, things changed, for whatever reason. That’s what I, and hundreds of other people on Twitter and FB who have been sharing it with their followers too, are trying to tell you and spread the word about – these companies cannot be labeled Sustainable. Period. And by you doing so, and you know this to be true (even someone with an MBA in sustainability called you on it via Twitter), you are green-stamp approving them to the masses. Read all the atrocities they have, and continue to, participate in and leave in their wake. You really want them at your conference calling themselves sustainable? With your name attached? I find that hard to believe if you truly care about the planet.

    I get advertising offers every month from companies like these…and I turn them all down. Why? My ethics and morals are more important to me than dollars are. This is how I make my living, just like you. Yet I don’t have to take money from companies who pollute and abuse human rights year after year after year, even after attending conferences like yours.. Why do you?

    You aren’t being slammed – the truth is being told. And obviously many, many people agree with me. Aren’t these companies coming to your event? Yes. Aren’t they going to use it in PR? Yes. Are they going to change? No. They haven’t from coming other years, so why this year?

    For you to suggest that I am doing nothing is laughable. I try to tell the truth about what companies like Dow do when they destroy water supplies around the world, when Nestle steals water, when Walmart abuses human rights. If that means I am doing nothing, then I can only imagine what it means if a person promotes them as being sustainable and letting them greenwash people.

    And I refuse to let that happen.

    Send along your comment and I will GLADLY, (for the 3rd or 4th time) add it to the site. Who knows why you can’t get on there – I never blocked you, spammed you, or anything like that. And I will continue to say that over and over again. You left plenty of comments, including a 3 pager or so, and I didn’t block or delete that one. Why would I start now? Believe me, we are awaiting with baited breath your next comment to just keep this conversation going and in the forefront.

    I will go ahead and post your email on the site, as well as this response. Just let me know if you want something else posted.”

  13. Thanks for the comment Jen, appreciate it.

    As I have said several times, I totally get that there are some amazing companies there that are doing great work. That’s awesome and I wish there were more! And while I am sure that some of the people inside the “dirty” companies don’t like the way their company does business, the fact remains that the company is usually looking for good PR from a conference like this. I for one would never work for a Nestle, just because everyone knows they don’t actually care because of how they act. For example, Walmart just got busted earlier this week for environmental violations. And Dow was in an article just this morning for being one of 5 companies opposing the banning of BPA in our plastics and cans. If they cared, would they be doing this stuff while simultaneously signing up for “Sustainable Brands”? These companies do not actually care about anything other than value to shareholders – and I am afraid that giving them space at a conference like this does nothing but buy them good PR that they can put on a letterhead. This was the point that I, or anyone who has commented on this thread, on FaceBook, or sent it around Twitter, has wanted someone to acknowledge. I don’t accept money from companies like this, so not sure why organizations WAY bigger than myself need to. Integrity is integrity, and once you violate it all bets are off and your word cannot really be trusted again.

    People used to raise a stink when doctors took money from cigarette companies to say they “aren’t that bad”. Sierra Club was written off by entire chapters when they took money from Clorox. How is a conference called “Sustainable Brands” taking money from a (still) polluting chemical company any different? Let these companies actually clean up their act and then come to the conferences – don’t give them coverage when they don’t deserve it and haven’t changed their behavior even after attending in the past.

    As for coming to Monterey, will have to pass. Too corporate-oriented for me.

    Thanks Jen!

  14. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course. But when you look at what just these 6 companies are doing on a daily, continuous basis – how is this an improvement over what they did say, last year after the conference? It isn’t. And I did mention that SB probably set out to do some good, and probably still do (how could they not with this much pull), with the companies who truly care – like Hollender’s, Chouinard’s, and even the much smaller ones in attendance. But lets face it – as much as I love Seventh Generation, and use them almost exclusively in my house, they need Walmart in order to sell product, and they need Walmart to change in order for them to feel comfortable selling said product there. Am I wrong? 🙂

    A very small amount of research clearly shows that these companies are more interested in value to shareholders than they are in the environment. It’s just a fact. All of them listed above have committed horrible “sins” against both people and planet in prior years, as of this morning, and they will tomorrow …and don’t show many signs of improving anytime soon. Until “we” consumers decide enough is enough, they are not going to change – not after a conference or a lecture. Only when their money dries up from customers buying safer alternatives and supporting companies that act in a positive manner will they make big changes. In the meantime, they can drag their feet and use the PR as coverage.

    I think someone on Twitter said that the conference should be called “We can teach you how to be sustainable” or something like that – and that would make much, much more sense. But by calling it “Sustainable Brands”, putting Clorox on the homepage, and not pointing out, in writing, the terrible things that these companies do and need to change, well…it does a disservice to all of us who are actually trying to make change by giving the company free positive PR without having to make a change themselves at all. People outside of our little sphere believe press when they see it – so if Clorox says they are now sustainable, the majority of people will believe it without question. So it’s not negativity for negativity’s sake – it’s trying to point out obvious hypocrisy to those who otherwise might not see it. Make sense?

    1. And, as an added bonus, take a look at what some of these companies have been up to just in the last few months, and what Hollender had to say about Clorox just last year. It’s pretty obvious none of them have learned a thing as of late and have only continued “business as usual”.

      March 17, 2010 РNestl̩ drives rainforest destruction pushing orangutans to brink

      March 22, 2010 – Coca-Cola hit by pollution claim in India – Coca-Cola contaminated water and polluted the environment at a south Indian bottling plant and should pay $65.9 million in compensation

      February 25th, 2010 – A complaint was filed in the New York Supreme Court against the The Coca-Cola Company alleging that they knew about and sought to cover up human rights abuses in Guatemala.

      May 4, 2010 – Walmart got caught violating California’s environmental laws by dumping hazardous materials improperly and agreed to pay $27.6 million to the state to settle a lawsuit.

      January 28, 2009 – From Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation – “Clorox can still claim that it’s a responsible company, if you define “responsible” as reluctantly complying with the letter of the law. But an authentically good company is one where all of its works live up to its (good) words. Selling natural-based products with the one hand while contributing to indoor-air pollution with the other shows that Clorox is neither completely good nor completely bad. It’s just a poseur. ”

      Where does the line get drawn between condemning actions and allowing the continuation of greenwash? If we don’t condemn and publicize, we aren’t doing anyone, or anything, any good.

  15. I’m surprised by all the vitriol in this thread.

    I’m the Managing Editor over at Triple Pundit, where we wrestle with all the same issues you all do, and I totally get where you are coming from. We struggle to avoid giving airspace to companies that don’t give a damn every day, all the while giving space to those who are legitimately trying to make their business practices better. It’s a constant struggle to decide which stories are worthy of reporting.

    But I’ve got to say, having attended Sustainable Brands last year, I was DEEPLY impressed with the caliber of the conversations that were happening there. This is honestly one of the most forward thinking sustainable business conferences of the year. The people in the halls, representing these brands you hate, they *totally* get it. And they are working their asses off from the inside to make their companies better. It’s really commendable.

    If you’d like to come down to Monterrey, there is actually a great deal of room at Sustainable Brands for dissent, and your opinions would be welcome. KoAnn runs a simultaneous Unconference which takes the top-down approach right out of the conference. Anyone can pitch a topic and lead a conversation. It would be great to have your point of view represented there.

  16. Holy cow. This is quite the conversation. I think it’ll be worth a post on 3p tomorrow when I have time to think about it a little but more, but I want to extend a bit of support for both of your perspectives.

    The Good Human does a good job of calling out some real problems, and I do feel that you guys are playing a real role in provoking change. The activist’s role is to be provocative and call out the bs, the irony, the hypocrisy, and point to opportunities for improvements. You guys nailed a few really good points here.

    But go easy on Sustainable Brands. I’ve experienced some real, genuine, profoundly thoughtful conversations at that conference and look forward to it again this year.

    My philosophy is this: Companies are made of people. Even the companies that are being criticized here. Some of those people are genuinely interested in changing how their organizations do business, some may not be.

    All I can tell you is that from my observation, the dialogue I’ve observed vis a vis SB has been an interesting mix, but has generally been positive. When it hasn’t been, I’ve let my criticism be known, often directly to the companies in question and I’ve generally felt it honestly received. People can only do so much, and large companies move slowly. This can be frustrating, but it’s just reality.

    At the end of the day, calling out greenwashing is a good thing, but failing to acknowledge the legitimate gains that companies have made is just being negative for the sake of negativity – it starts to fall on deaf ears, not the “masses” that someone here suggested need liberation, and definitely not on the people who are really trying to turn things around.

    Just ask Yvon Chouinard and Jeffrey Hollender who have both recently worked with Wal Mart. Are they now greenwashers?

  17. Thanks David. I’ll try to follow up in more depth, but on thing I want to point out. When you say:

    “A very small amount of research clearly shows that these companies are more interested in value to shareholders than they are in the environment.”

    That’s absolutely correct, and it’s not something you can criticize a company on. It is in fact a legal requirement. So when you bring up companies’ caring more about shareholder value, the criticism cannot lie with the company but with the law.

    There are people working to change how public companies are legally structured to allow this to change (B-corp and LC3 are two), but it is literally illegal for a public company to not put shareholder bottom line first. If they didn’t they would be sued and they’d lose.

    So that’s a very interesting, fascinating problem indeed!

  18. Yes, this is true. However, it’s not against the law for environmentalists to point out the inconsistency between what they say they want to do (while getting good PR for doing nothing of the sort)… and what they actually are doing, as evidenced by the recent news I linked to above. This is what we should be doing, not providing PR cover with no condemnation.


  19. David, I understand your concerns and support your activism. These are my own words. I happen to work with SLM and Koann as the community manager, love it, and think being an arbiter of conversation and dialogue (be it positive, neutral, or critical) is awesome. At last year’s conference twitter was going wild with honest feedback about various presenters, and what was on their minds. This backchannel heavily eased the burden of not having enough time for audience questions at times. I let off some steam myself about a brief presentation from “Extreme Home Makeover” for the plasticity and drama they produce (show the mom’s tears, play the u2 song…bs). I’ve only felt disagreement twice about why a presenter (out of SO many – dude, it’s insane how many sessions there are) is on stage or talking during a panel.

    One time, there was this panelist from Georgia-Pacific on sustainable packaging who was asked by an audience member (Zem) just 10 feet away what forestry certification they use. In response to saying “SFI”, Zem said that was greenwash and there was some cute drama going on right there. So rad…and it’s this kind of igniting dialogue I like to see happen. Because more businesspeople need to know FSC rocks.

    As much as I’d like to voice my opinion sometimes on our official twitter account, I do have an obligation to be values judgement neutral. So what can I do instead? Link to newspaper and other articles on the environment and business irresponsibilities, slips, and so on. I don’t always have time to because of other responsibilities. More personal thoughts will go on my own twitter account.

    This brings up my belief that media companies involved in professional development only have a responsibility to be objective and provide a forum for Individuals to meet, share, and learn. This goes as well for any association involved from veterinary science, to screenwriters, to public defenders. Hell, if any of them are running a conference it’s ILLEGAL according to interstate commerce law NOT to allow someone to attend just because someone in the org doesn’t like the company they’re from. Personally, I would find that dickish, self-righteous behavior, unworthy of an arbiter.

    So since you brought up sponsors, I looked them up from last year and 2010, and see SC Johnson as being the only one in my opinion, that might offend some dark green-minded folks.

    Pursuing and promoting the positive and authentic is what I seek. People can be inspired to change…and there’s a very long way to go! This country needs a new toxic substances control act NOW. The law needs to treat organizations just like individuals. I’m not an big activist nor personally believe SLM should be. There’s a collective mission among my colleagues and I to bring people together, in the pursuit of better and more responsible business models and practices, and foster conversation. Accentuate positive work through learning events and some online news stories, and let others be professionally critical.

    I’d just like to close in saying this David. Your words and accusations implying either a collective conspiracy, or default proxy endorsement, to greenwash and implicitly help companies hide their sins, learn some PR tricks etc., have struck me as a personal affront to the work I do. To the mission I pursue, everyday.

    Again, I respect the activist leadership you’ve established and truly believe that your greatest potential to effect change is when you’re objective and channel your passion for awareness & action. However, you’ve unfairly attacked me and my colleague’s work in such a harsh, negative tone that it propelled me to comment here today. Out of a duty to personal honor and dignity. Out of a responsibility to stand for what my progressive business-minded friends and I believe in. Out of Love and respect for Mother Earth. And lastly out of a will to seek out and cultivate the positive, innovative, and ardent spirit within all of us.

    1. Mario, thanks for the comment. I know you work for SLM, as we have talked in the past, and I appreciate you taking the time to write. However, I have to say, and using your own words, that it is an affront to my own personal beliefs and work (and many others who do the same thing every day) that anyone who calls themselves an environmentalist or activist can defend in any way, or choose to ignore, or leave out, the truth about human rights abuses, discrimination, ecological damages, or allowing companies to continue business as usual as they proclaim to have “gone green”. I am sure you can understand that. I am willing to bet, and correct me if I am wrong on this, that the facts I listed in an earlier comment will be completely ignored at the conference. Are you, or anyone else there, willing to ask Nestle about palm oil and the destruction they are reaping on the environment? Or willing to ask Coke about the charges of human rights abuses? Or Dow about the cleanup they have been ignoring for 30 years? These things keep getting ignored in the comments from people at SLM in their need to defend themselves, when there was no against them…but if what you do is “try to encourage companies to be sustainable” why not ask them about the horrible things they have done, just in the last few months alone?

      While I understand, and have stated already several times, that there are probably good people working at a company like Clorox, the fact remains that the company they work for is not sustainable in any way, shape, or form. And as representatives for the company at this conference, they should be held to the standards that I imagine someone like yourself would expect of a corporate entity, since you do claim to be interested in “respect for Mother Earth”. How can any of us proclaim this respect while ignoring atrocities? Especially at the very type of place they should be brought to the forefront?

      None of this is a personal attack. None of this is negativity for negativity sake. None of this is anything personal. No names were named and it wasn’t directed at anyone in particular. But it does concern me that a conference called “Sustainable Brands” doesn’t address some of the things I have written about, especially when you guys know that these companies will use this as PR not soon after the event is over. Most of these companies have attended in the past…yet they continue their behavior.

      If someone could at least acknowledge that “Yes, these companies have and continue to be an affront to the very things we love and stand for. We will ask them. We will hold their feet to the fire. We will at least consider the option of not giving them front-page status next year if they don’t change their ways by then” I could get behind that. Be HONEST about what they do and what you are trying to get them to do. Let people know about the damage they have done. If anything, publicity like that might actually make them change!

      While I can appreciate your desire to come here to defend yourself, and it’s obvious I touched a nerve, this isn’t about you and it isn’t about me – it’s about SLM giving a platform to these companies while completely ignoring their horrific abuses to our planet and it’s inhabitants. That’s what this is about, 100%. I will totally support SLM and SB if they call out all the stuff these companies do during the conference, publicize it, and get them to at least acknowledge it if nothing else… but do you think that will happen? I don’t have much hope for that at all.

      And that’s why it’s important to focus on, and expose, what companies like this continue to do while taking the focus off of me, you, KoAnn, or anyone else who has a stake in our planet.

      Again, thanks for the comment, I appreciate you taking the time to write. We are on the same side, whether people believe it or not, but there is more than one way of working that side. You think my way is misguided and I think your way is misguided – but the end result hopefully will be the same. All I ask is that SLM and SB be honest with the public and tell it like it truly is.

  20. Thanks for the comments from those friends who actually know us and what we’re doing. They’ve about said it all for me, I think, except for my closing comments at sustainablelifemedia (dot) com/blog.

  21. This has been such a fascinating thread to follow — one that highlights how complex and massive and deeply emotional the challenges that face us can be. This movement needs activists like David and the Good Human to challenge us, to point out hypocrisies and to continually push all of us to remain on the right track. But the harsh truth is that “activist environmentalism” that speaks these difficult truths can only take us so far. There are only so many members of the choir who are willing and able to radically change their lifestyles and to break out of the powerful orbit of capitalist-driven society. And I applaud those who have made that choice and who continue to encourage and invite and challenge others — individuals, corporations and countries — to follow that lead.

    On the other hand, no amount of activism, on its own, can cause the big, necessary changes to happen. Activism needs to find constructive ways to work in concert with the often harsh realities of capitalism. Nic Aster is of course correct: businesses are legally obligated to put the interests of their shareholder’s first. So if we want to encourage companies that’ve been around forever and ever to start moving in right directions, we need to find ways to help them within the constraints of their realities.

    Some companies are in a position to make big, bold moves we can all celebrate clearly. Most large, multinational companies simply cannot. Changing them is like turning a tanker: it takes time, perseverance and patience. Importantly, it takes supporting the people on the inside who are working against incredible odds to make a difference. Those people need information and tools and hope and encouragement. They need to be able to justify things like ROI and shareholder value connected to moves towards sustainability.

    To use another analogy, moving these big companies is a bit like changing an addict’s behavior: You focus one day, one project at a time. You don’t let them get overwhelmed by the enormity of the overall effort, or you’ll lose ’em.

    What I’m trying to point out here is that we need activists to get out in front and challenge us and show the way, but we also need organizations like KoAnn’s to help “addicted” companies feel safe and empowered as they begin to move in the right direction.

    It’s disheartening to see one camp burning energy attacking the other. We all need to recognize that it’s gonna take all of us, from all sorts of angles and over all sorts of time frames, to make real change happen.

    In war, there’s nothing better than to see dissension and bickering within the other side’s ranks. We’ve got big challenges ahead of us, and big enemies and inertia to fight — hopefully we can return to a place of mutual respect and refocus all of our energy on the many battles ahead!

  22. Thanks David for this article!
    I shudder when I hear companies claiming to be green while it is clear that they ‘green’ themselves just enough to increase their sales. This is true for small and huge companies, many of which could afford to become really green. But what are they doing? They use ‘green-looking’ packaging that’s most likely shipped in from China because its so good for their bottom line, and not for the environment. Its like several of my ‘natural’ pet food company competitors which claim their products are ‘organic’ while they simply aren’t organic (only *certified* organic pet food claims are regulated by the government). Since it’s hard for most consumers to follow all those details, many fall for false claims, and support greenwashers even further by buying their products. I think, in the end, only government regulations and actual activity of the FTC can put a stop to this. I know, education is an important part of this picture, but the process of educating sufficient numbers of consumers on so many different levels simply takes too long.

  23. These companies need to be included in these types of conferences so they can learn best practices and engage with CSR leaders.

    If you insist on excluding them, how will they be able to learn? Although I’m sure there is some PR benefit from sponsoring or even just attending such conferences, it’s not akin to say, receiving an award for environmental innovation.

    I think it’s important to highlight what the intended purpose of the event is, not just the implications or benefits which companies will receive.

    Doctors are for the sick – not the healthy.

    1. I think it’s pretty obvious who benefits from these greenwash events. The people putting them on and the companies buying good PR. Definitely not the planet, that’s for sure.

  24. I have just read all these posts and i have to say i totally agree with Linda, KoAnn and Jen. I so often find that people in the ‘green’ industry are so quick to judge, point fingers and quite frankly don’t see nor understand the actual ‘business’ of sustainability. I work as a Sustainability Consultant with some big / high profile brands and i can tell you with my hand on my heart that these huge ‘Mother Ships’ are starting to change their business structures and confront sustainable business head on. Most of their efforts you wont even see for 5-10 years because (for example) it takes that long to completely change their whole global supply chain structure – its not going to happen overnight. Noah, you talk about showing ‘concrete steps’ – that would be brand suicide, it would be seen as ‘greenwashing’ and people like you would be out there screaming from the rafters its all just a ‘marketing gimmick’ – these companies / brands are changing from the inside out first so when they actually talk to their consumers the changes are already in place and the results are accumulating -like McDonalds for example.

    So many of the posts above just seem like real ‘greeny’ opinions they seem closed minded, outdated and based on inadequate research.

    Quite frustrating really….

    1. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, Sarah. For me, my principles triumph over a paycheck provided by companies buying good PR instead of actually making change. I bet if anyone revisited what these companies promise each year at these events, one would find that most of it never happens or is implemented.

      Sorry if that frustrates you, but some of us have to try to hold companies (and those that cover for them) accountable. The environment can’t help itself, and these polluting companies sure aren’t helping it either.

  25. Call them out, boycott, and force them to change. If people really knew the truth about what these companies do, they would forever stop buying product from them.

    Coddling them just lets them continue business as usual, which is exactly why they pay big money to attend conventions like this – it buys great PR without actually making them change anything.

  26. Your passion and enthusiasm are amazing and commendable – how can we leverage the energy of activists to help large corporations solve their environmental issues?

    Personally, I feel quite strongly about the idea that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Is the solution really to boycott/call out these companies for their actions, or to collaborate and help them improve?

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