Conservation International: “Are they any more than a green PR company?”

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Alcoa. ArcelorMittal. Barrick Gold. BG Group. BHP Billiton. BP Foundation. Bunge. Cargill. Chevron. Coca-Cola. De Beers Group. Giti Tire. Goldman Sachs. Kimberly-Clark. Kraft Foods. McDonald’s. Medco Group. Monsanto. MPX Colombia. Newmont Mining Corporation. Northrop Grumman Corporation. Rio Tinto. Shell. Toyota Motor Corporation. United Airlines. Walmart. Wilmar International.

If you think this looks like a list of some of biggest companies in the world, responsible for appalling levels of pollution, you’d be right. But this list is not taken from a radical green campaign hitlist, but from Conservation International’s Corporate Partners. Conservation International is proud to work with these companies, helping them (for a fee, of course) to greenwash their images:

We believe that corporations are a major ally in our conservation efforts. It’s like adding a big hitter to your championship team. We’ve always taken pride in our relationships with our creative corporate partners. Many have been making a difference for decardes; others are just getting started.

Recently, journalists from the London-based magazine Don’t Panic decided to find out whether Conservation International was “any more than a green PR company.” They went undercover to see just how far Conservation International would go to help polluting industry. Given the list of corporate polluters that Conservation International is already working with, the first challenge was to find a company sufficiently heinous to make the point that Conservation International really will work with just about anyone.

Don’t Panic decided to pretend to be the biggest multinational arms company in the world: Lockheed Martin. Don’t Panic notes that, “Lockheed sells US$30 billion a year of stuff to kill people with, including missiles, fighter jets, some alleged depleted uranium bombs.” Surely this would be a step too far, even for Conservation International?

Er, no. Two of Don’t Panic’s journalists dressed as “arms industry scumbags and went to meet a senior figure from Conservation International’s corporate relations department.” They asked whether Conservation International might be able to make its business practices more “environmentally friendly” by carrying out environmental impact surveys of the company, or looking into recycling schemes in its offices, for example. Conservation International wasn’t interested. Instead, Conservation International suggested a “carbon offset strategy” and that “Lockheed Martin” could “offset” its polluting and deadly operations by buying a forest in Madagascar, Asia or Africa. The Don’t Panic team decided that supporting a bird of prey would have more “resonance” with the public than “large scale projects such as forestry [sic] protection.”

Don’t Panic produced a 12 minute video about Conservation International – the organisation that will greenwash any company, for the right price:

Conservation International invited Lockheed Martin to become part of its Business Sustainability Council, for only US$37,500 a year. The Conservation International representative explains the benefits:

“There’s lots of big companies, so networking happens. You’ll get to meet these people. Get involved in BSC first, so your showing leadership by getting involved in that particular forum.”

The Conservation International representative also offered access to the Integrated Biodiversity Assessment Tool (IBAT). At this stage it becomes difficult to tell spoof from reality. For only US$25,000, “Lockheed Martin” would be allowed to associate its name with the tool (on its website, for example), but this will not imply any “regulation” of the company’s activities. Conservation International’s representative adds that “Lockheed Martin” could also join the IBAT “Corporate Consultative Group” allowing the company “to potentially craft what other data that may be incorporated in the future.” Several companies have done this, including Bank of America, BP, Cargill, Chevron and JPMorganChase.

Don’t Panic’s presenter, Heydon Prowse asks:

“Why would a green charity be encouraging large polluters to make more profits, offsetting their environmental impacts without even pressuring that company to reduce that damaging impact in the first instance?”

At the end of the video, Prowse answers his own question:

“We were starting to see how the cosy relationship between Conservation International and big business worked. CI’s dependence on corporate funding made them unwilling to exert any pressure on polluters to change their ways.”

Justin Ward is Vice President of Business Practices in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB). On Conservation International’s website, he says that, “It is motivating to work every day with counterparts in the business sector who, contrary to some stereotypes of corporate attitudes, share our passion for CI’s mission.” Here is Conservation International’s mission:

Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity.

Conservation International declined to comment to Don’t Panic or to the Ecologist when contacted about this story. REDD-Monitor looks forward to Conservation International’s explanation of how greenwashing an arms corporation fits with its mission statement (one of Conservation International’s Corporate partners is Northrop Grumman Corporation – the world’s fourth largest arms manufacturer in 2008). Or how greenwashing oil companies, mining companies, banks, airlines, paper companies or steel companies fits with its mission statement. Or perhaps Conservation International will come clean and admit that it is, in fact, nothing more than a green PR company.

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16 Comments

  1. There’s also these two really important articles about them:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/wrong-kind-green

    http://www.swans.com/library/art15/barker12.html

    Forest trends is one of the organizations under forest ethics along with the relatively good Friends of The Earth and Amazon Watch:
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Forest_Ethics

    Sadly, their co director’s a part of this affair:
    http://s3.amazonaws.com/offsettingresistance/offsettingresistance.pdf

    Great write up though.

  2. CI should be stripped of their UN NGO Observer Status and expelled from the various NGO caucuses within the UNFCCC.

    Which self-respecting NGOs would want to have such a digusting organisation in their midst?

    Which government could possibly treat seriously anything these people say about climate change?

  3. Don’t Panic – what legends! great post

  4. This is amazing. Thank you. In Burlington Vermont USA a group of activists are trying to keep Lockheed Martin from using otherwise progressive city in a a greenwashing/PR tactic. The New York Times covered our efforts yesterday. You can be sure we will circulate this article and your powerful video.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/us/12burlington.html

  5. @liza (#4)- Thanks for this – glad it’s useful! Just to be clear, it’s not REDD-Monitor’s video. The video was produced by Don’t Panic – a London-based magazine. But feel free to distribute the article (and the link to the video: http://bit.ly/kr0HkJ)!

  6. All the BINGOs, to one degree or another, have questionable relationships with extractive corporations, and their explanations for them are pretty much the same. “We are helping these companies do their work in a more environmentally responsible manner.” I would accept that claim were they not also accepting huge contributions (in CI’s case charging the “partners” for the contributions) from corporations.

    The question that CI, TNC, WWF, WCF and AWF need to answer is this: Would you be willing to form collaborative partnerships with these companies without accepting any funds from them? And would you be willing to publicly sever a partnership if the corporate partner did not improve it’s extractive practices to your satisfaction?

    I believe we know the answer to those questions.

  7. “The question that CI, TNC, WWF, WCF and AWF need to answer is this: Would you be willing to form collaborative partnerships with these companies without accepting any funds from them?”

    What would be involved in such a “collaborative partnership”? From the conservation organisations point of view, how many people, all of whom would need to be paid for their WORK (because it is work) and how would you propose they be paid IF the NGO were to do it pro bono?

    On that note, why should NGOs do it pro bono? NGOs are businesses, not charities, which employ educated and skilled professional people that need to be paid just like any other professional industry. The implication here, and something which is a common misconception, is that because working for a conservation (or even developmental) NGO is seen as an ultimately altruistic endeavor, that people therein should work for free.

    A lot of people working in conservation have spent as much time in university (with equal bills) as architects or IT designers, for example. Yet would you expect these latter professionals to work for free?

    Another important point, as simple and unpopular as it may be, is that NGOs need money now more than ever. That of course does not imply that one should get into bed with any big industry polluters offering dough, but the idea of the mom and pop NGOs, scrounging together bits and pieces here and there, fighting the good fight, noble as it sounds is totally unrealistic.

    Conservationists have to work with big industry. If they get them to improve their behaviour/practices, take their money and at the same time protect wildlife, which is the bottom line, whats the problem? more pertinently, whats the alternative? to continue as we are with species loss and extinction at unprecedented rates? What is critically important is that NGOs are totally committed to “publicly severing a partnership if the corporate partner did not improve it’s extractive practices to their satisfaction”, something in the past some NGOs have been reluctant to do.

    This piece by Dontpanic is really good for highlighting how careful conservation NGOs need to be when deciding who to take money from and how to use it. And it certainly seems from their argument that CI really dropped the ball on this and were too focused on the end result. I would, however, take what they say with a pinch of reality salt, as it is a very one sided subjective argument that nonetheless raises an important issue.

  8. Conservation International has now replied to Don’t Panic’s video: “Statement from CI.”

    @Liv (#7) – Thanks for this. Yes NGOs should get paid for the work they do. I don’t think anyone is arguing that they shouldn’t. The question is whether Conservation International would form collaborative partnerships with companies, without accepting their money? That doesn’t mean they will work for free, just that they will avoid the conflict of interest of accepting money from some of the biggest polluters on the planet. They can accept money from elsewhere.

    There’s an interesting piece in the Huffington Post (http://huff.to/kQwtg5) that points out that “Lockheed Martin” would have to go through Conservation International’s due diligence process before any partnership would be formed. But how serious is the due diligence process when Monsanto passed it? How many companies has Conservation International kicked off their Corporate Partners list? And if they have a policy of kicking companies off, why is BP still there? Or Shell?

    The problem with what CI is doing is that it is accepting money from polluting corporations and allowing the corporations to green their image by association with CI. Meanwhile CI does little or nothing to pressure the companies to improve what they are actually doing, as the IBAT example shows.

  9. @Liv

    “NGOs are businesses, not charities” – yes, precisely my point, and indeed that of the posting: if organisations such as CI have truly become businesses, with the interests of their staff (salaries) placed ahead of their objectives, then they should no longer be considered as part of the ‘not for profit community’, and should be stripped of all privileges (and trust) that that status accords them.

    “why should NGOs do it pro bono?” – they shouldn’t: but if they get paid for doing work for corporations, then they should be honest about being, for example, PR consultants, not NGOs.

    “NGOs need money now more than ever” – organisations such as CI have long passed the point where the need for money has anything to do with the achievement of their objectives on behalf of the planet, but is merely a reflection of self-perpetuating growth and the personal ambitions of its Board and managers.

    What the *planet* needs now more than ever is uncompromised, honest and trustworthy NGOs.

  10. DEFINITELY CONFLICT OF INTEREST! How effective does CI think it can be in challenging corporations to minimise environmental impact and conserve nature too when they are taking money from them. Our indigenous peoples in Guyana should see this and talk about protected areas too. It’s all in the open CI – the truth is out.

  11. @Liv (#7) – I wonder if you know how much CI’s CEO, Peter Seligman, earned in 2009? US$452,642. He is certainly not in any danger of working pro bono.

  12. @ A Witness:

    “if organisations such as CI have truly become businesses, with the interests of their staff (salaries) placed ahead of their objectives, then they should no longer be considered as part of the ‘not for profit community’, and should be stripped of all privileges (and trust) that that status accords them.” — The problem, especially in the U.S. is that economy is in the toilet and not likely to ever recover. Funding for environmental charities is abysmal, and many fight with each other over sponsors. Yes, people need jobs, but if CI or any other environmental organization started offering very low salaries for important positions, it would cost them more money as turn-over rate goes up and the revolving door starts to swing: training, a little bit of work, 2-week notice due to a better paying job, … rinse, repeat…

    “organisations such as CI have long passed the point where the need for money has anything to do with the achievement of their objectives on behalf of the planet, but is merely a reflection of self-perpetuating growth and the personal ambitions of its Board and managers.” — Self-perpetuating growth and personal ambition are part of the systemic problem in all of Western Culture. In terms of U.S. dollars, would you take a job as a conservation organization to do high-level administrative work for $20k/yr, or would you jump at another job offer of $250k/yr for the same work at a environment-destroying business? We can blame the businesses/non-profits for being competitive, or we blame ourselves for habitually putting our own self-interest first.

    The problems outlined here are real, and CI should re-evaluate what it’s doing. I’m not denying that. But as I said, the problem is systemic. We are all at fault. We spend gross amounts of money on entertainment and cheap gadgets rather than donating to conservation programs and volunteering. Most of us look for higher paying jobs, and almost all of us will opt to save our wallets rather than the environment when we walk down the aisles at the store. Do we ask questions about what “organic” really means or look behind the label? Do we take “Reduced, Reuse, Recycle” seriously, or should it be worded to match Western sentiment: “Recycle (of course I do!), rarely reuse (as long as it doesn’t make you look too trashy), and “reduce” only when you’ve lost your job.”

  13. @Chris (8)
    “The question is whether Conservation International would form collaborative partnerships with companies, without accepting their money? That doesn’t mean they will work for free, just that they will avoid the conflict of interest of accepting money from some of the biggest polluters on the planet.” As I asked before, what is the nature of such a collaboration, and what would be involved? likely a lot of work, and expertise, so WHY would they not take the money? The issue is obviously IF they do take the money, there has to be a solid commitment from the company in question that it will improve its actions, and CI (or any other NGO in the position) has to ensure that they adhere to said conditions. If and when these companies fail to hold up their end of the bargain is when the NGO must publicly name and shame, something that all BINGOs are reluctant to do because it could likely lead to them not receiving funding from that source. This is wrong, and needs to change. No question. This also comes back to your point that
    “They can accept money from elsewhere”- of course they can, but where??? The situation regarding uncertainty with regard to secured funding is THAT bad.

    @Chris (11). “I wonder if you know how much CI’s CEO, Peter Seligman, earned in 2009? US$452,642. He is certainly not in any danger of working pro bono.”
    Yes I did know, and the rest of them. You’re absolutely right, but here youre talking about a tiny tiny percentage of the people earning ludicrous salaries. The vast majority of people working in conversation earn very little, a fact which is somewhat counterbalanced by the perks of the job, namely working in living in beautiful and often cheap places, and doing something which they are passionate about.

    @A witness (9)
    What are their objectives and how do they achieve them? We’re talking about complicated projects which require educated and experienced people to execute them. The interests of their staff (ie being paid) is integral to achieving the organisations goal; the latter is reliant upon the former.

    I totally agree with regard to your comment about the need for transparency and honesty when dealing with these companies.

    “organisations such as CI have long passed the point where the need for money has anything to do with the achievement of their objectives” This is statement is simply ill informed and inaccurate. The system is definitely far from perfect and definitely in need of an overhaul; More should be and could be done with the money at hand. Given the pressure exerted by the economic crisis I hope that NGOs will be forced to make funds go further and waste less, but to imply that all NGOs are like this, and that money isnt a SIGNIFICANT factor is not reflective of the reality of the situation. Further to that, generalising the mass using the example of a tiny minority concerned with “self-perpetuating growth” is unwarranted; the vast majority of conservationists are honest, trustworthy and passionate about their role in conserving nature.

    as @alex (12) implies, The system is f*****, and needs changing.

  14. @Alex

    “Self-perpetuating growth and personal ambition are part of the systemic problem in all of Western Culture”. Precisley my point: groups like CI have become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    You can say what you like about conservation organisations needing good staff, and good staff needing to be paid etc (which of course has some truth to it), but if the public doesn’t trust organisations like CI – which they certainly should not do as things stands – then conservation and the planet suffers as a whole. In others words, CI have betrayed us.

    Following your logic that organisations like CI need to behave like other big corporations, presumably you now think that, as his policies have severely tarnished the crediblity of the organisation and ‘reduced shareholder value’, then it’s time for Peter Seligman to go, along with a few Board members?

  15. Great investigative journalism by Don’t Panic. They need to look into Fauna and Flora International, The Nature Conservancy, Wildlife Conservation Society and others. They’re all prostituting themselves out at the expense of the global environment. Take a look at who their ED’s and boards are. You’ll find Goldman Sachs everywhere.

    You want to help an NGO? Work with and contribute to a small one that does actual work on the ground.

  16. Wow!! I am completely shocked by one of the comments. Really, who cares about the salary of these people in CI or other NGO’s working like this one?!
    “The one who holds the victim is as much as guilty as the one who pulls the trigger”
    I didn’t know that being co-author of crimes against people and Earth was considered a job!!!
    An even far more worse is that it is a well-established “business which employs educated and skilled professional people” which apparently, their expensive and long-term education didn’t provide ethical integrity!
    What these NGO’s should be doing is to monitor and expose the crimes of business and receive money from such businesses but as the payment for the crimes against humanity and Earth, and not as a payment for keeping a “nice green image” of their crimes!
    CI really should change its name for “Conservation International of Businesses’ Profits”
    The most important point of this post is that CI is willing to look for a “mascot” (endangered species) for the use of a green image for a company that brings death!!!

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