11th May, 2011
US environmental charity under fire for close links with controversial companies, including Cargill, Chevron, Monsanto and Shell
A leading environmental charity has been accused of corporate ‘greenwashing’ after a senior employee was secretly filmed by undercover reporters discussing ways in which the organisation could help an arms company boost its green credentials, the Ecologist can reveal.
Options outlined by the representative of Conservation International (CI) included assisting with the arms company’s green PR efforts, membership of a business forum in return for a fee, and sponsorship packages where the arms company could potentially invest money in return for being associated with conservation activities.
The sting was carried out by the London-based magazine Don’t Panic, with their journalists posing as representatives of a major international defence corporation.
Don’t Panic have produced a twelve-minute film in which they make the allegations (watch it below).
The female CI employee was recorded describing how the organisation could help the arms company develop key environmental messages, identify target audiences and craft a communications plan as part of one package offered by the charity.
Footage from the meeting shows the CI representative outlining the benefits of a number of the charity’s initiatives, including membership of the ‘Business and Sustainability Council’, which is offered to companies in return for a payment of $37,500 per year.
The payments would secure the company being publicly listed as a partner on the council, facilitate company representatives meeting with other council members – which includes controversial multinationals Shell, Monsanto and Chevron, amongst others – and provide access to CI expertise and networks.
Undercover footage of a Conservation International employee discussing helping an arms company with its green PR
In the meeting, which took place in London in October 2010, the CI employee also outlined how the charity could potentially facilitate the arms company if it wanted to be associated with protecting an endangered species.
The CI manager explained how the organisation could make introductions to relevant NGOs and potentially help the arms company to develop a PR strategy for the venture, if money was invested in a relevant conservation programme.
Film footage shows the CI employee suggesting North African birds of prey as a possible endangered species mascot for the arms company because of the ‘link to aviation’.
In follow up correspondence between CI and the undercover reporters, seen by the Ecologist, CI also outline possible sponsorship options for the arms company, with investment needing to be at least £150,000 over three years.
Close links to big business
Although there is no suggestion of illegality or wrongdoing on behalf of CI, the footage could prove embarrassing to the US-based charity and could fuel growing concerns amongst activists that some NGOs are growing too close to big businesses often linked to environmental destruction and other abuses.
‘That we [the arms company] were not serious about green issues was made clear to Conservation International over and over again [in our meeting],’ Heydon Prowse, from Don’t Panic, said.
‘We told them that one of our key environmental strategies was to recycle bomb shrapnel from battle zones to use again in new bombs and that we were adapting our cluster bomb technology to drop seeds so as to re-forest remote regions. We waited for them to be outraged… they never were.’
CI is linked with at least one other company in the defence sector – Northrup Gruman – which supplies the US military and provides parts for warplanes.
The President and CEO of Northrup Gruman, Wes Bush, also sits on the CI Board of Directors.
CI’s ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ is, according to the organisation, ‘a community of corporate leaders committed to taking positive environmental actions in their businesses.’ Members include a number of controversial companies including Cargill, Chevron, McDonald’s, Monsanto, Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Shell and Bunge.
The corporations commit to paying $75,000 over two years to CI and to send senior representatives to council meetings. The companies are also encouraged to host meetings themselves; one, held in late 2010, examined ‘sustainable agriculture’ and was hosted by Monsanto.
CI recently partnered with the Walt Disney Company on carbon offsetting, working with the media company to set up controversial Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) schemes in Peru and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The organisation also previously partnered with agribusiness giant Cargill as part of a project to ‘create benefits for both business and biodiversity in areas where Cargill operates’. Cargill provided support of $1.5 million to the venture.
Don’t Panic say they were astonished that CI didn’t appear to have any qualms about partnering with an arms company.
‘If we discovered that our elected politicians at DEFRA had been accepting money from these characters it would rightly be a scandal. Should we not expect as much from the charities we donate to who claim to uphold a cause on our behalf?’ said Heydon Prowse.
Conservation International declined to comment when approached by the Ecologist.