Environmental NGOs in bed with industry

There’s a lesson to be learned from Johann Hari’s screed in The Nation about corporate sponsorship of environmental NGOs: perception is important. In a fairly long article, Hari argues that a wide swath of environmental organizations are undermining their missions and their members by accepting corporate sponsorship. The targets are rather scattershot, but along the way Hari manages to accuse the Sierra Club of greenwashing products by Clorox; Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy of undermining quality forestry requirements in a new international effort to regulate deforestation; and a range of groups of supporting polluters over a supposedly easy solution to regulating greenhouse gases.

Listen, I don’t agree that CI and TNC are “polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism.” I don’t think the Sierra Club did any major or lasting damage to the environmental cause by allowing their logo to appear on some Clorox products. The Sierra Club is also not mistaken in thinking that the Clean Air Act is a poor tool for dealing with greenhouse gases (see Dave Roberts’s readable summary of why the Act isn’t the panacea some hope). And I certainly think that the political efficacy of 350.org, a relatively new activist organization heralded by Hari and led by an important scientist whose political skills are unfortunately subpar, is yet to be proven.

All these views are basically counter to Hari’s examples, yet I’m not really comfortable saying I disagree with the article. It’s the truth that organizations relying on the largesse of their members must maintain an image that those members can support. What seems clear from most of those organizations’ responses to the article is that they haven’t given nearly enough thought to the way their corporate sponsorship is perceived.

That being said, Hari’s vitriol reflects a too-common strain of environmentalism that dismisses industry and corporateness itself. This, I can’t conscience. The old and tired battle lines of us versus them, environmentalists versus industry, individuals versus corporations just don’t hold up anymore, and more importantly these divisions preclude a constructive vision for the way forward. Climate change, deforestation, species loss, food and water access, environmental toxins, etc – these are all problems that will require everyone to be creative and make changes. If you think the NGO you support isn’t doing enough or the right thing, you should let them know! If you think the corporation you purchase some item or service from isn’t doing enough or the right thing, you should let them know! If you think your elected representative isn’t doing enough or the right thing, you should let them know!

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tim

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  1. Chris Bedford - March 24, 2010

    What we need are proper nouns — the names of the environmental groups and the names of the corporations. The Sierra Club and chlorox is a small beginning. Where are the names? Without them, we can’t mount a campaign.

  2. mbghtri - March 24, 2010

    Tim, thank you for the well written article. I agree that the “us vs. them” argument doesn’t help anybody. We are all on this planet together.
    As long as the corporations are not influencing the NGOs to lower their standards, I don’t see a problem with this sort of sponsorship. It is a great way for these non-profit institutions to raise money and awareness for their cause. Corporations can bring big money to sponsor organizations that otherwise would go unfunded.
    While companies like Clorox are not known for treading lightly on the environment (disposable mops, anyone?), some of their products are better than others. Highlighting these products is a good way to influence consumer behavior and encourage Clorox to clean up their act in other ways.