Greenwashing sounds like something that is nice, right? I learned just yesterday what this term means and was a bit dismayed, but not surprised. Let me back up here.
I follow several fantastic gardening and urban homesteading blogs, among them Garden Rant and Root Simple. This week, they both commented on and invited their readers to discuss a new collaboration between the National Wildlife Federation and Scotts Miracle Gro Company. Essentially, the NWF accepted money from Scotts Miracle Gro and announced a new partnership in order to “connect children with nature.” The feedback from readers and folks on NWF’s Facebook page has been incredibly angry and many NWF members are offended by this partnership.
A little background information in case you aren’t aware: the NWF is a non-profit that is dedicated to conservation of wildlife and their habitats, even common and robust species and plants that normally thrive in backyards and cities. I have driven and walked by many NWF Certified Wildlife Habitats in Iowa City – these are yards that have a special sign certifying that this is a space that attracts wildlife and thus helps to restore this wildlife to areas that have succumbed to urban sprawl. I considered doing this at some point down the road as I feel my backyard is a perfect example of this (although it makes much more sense to go ahead and create the habitat without bothering with a certification). I also was a huge fan as a kid of one of the NWF sponsored magazines, Ranger Rick. This little magazine, full of nature photography, information about animal species and why conservation is important, inspired me to always love nature and want to protect it. I remember feeling so important when my magazine came in the mail as a child and earnestly pointing out to my mom “Look! Ranger Rick says we have to use a sandwich reusable CONTAINER instead of plastic baggies in my lunch box!”
Scotts Miracle Gro Company, on the other hand, is not known to be especially friendly to the environment. In fact, it is considered by most environmental agencies to be downright destructive. It is impossible to walk into a garden center these days without being surrounded by Scotts products. I have never used a Scotts fertilizer or bug spray on any of my plants (doesn’t really go hand in hand with organic gardening practices) but I think I bought their organic soil to put in my raised garden beds (a decision I am now deeply regretting). Had I known that Scotts has an extremely long history of knowingly selling illegal pesticides, polluting environments around their factories, exposing their workers to contaminated vermiculite, and continued to degrade peatland, well, I would have run in the opposite direction.
Aside from this disturbing, fairly well hidden history, there remains another large problem – that Scotts Miracle Gro sells and avidly promotes the overuse of pesticides. When lawns are saturated with fertilizers and runoff is dumped into rivers and streams, wildlife is obviously affected. Roundup weed killer has actually been linked with miscarriages in cattle and possibly humans. Roundup is a broad spectrum weed killer and is owned by Monsanto – which deserves a whole separate post on another day. There are hundreds of articles and studies linking pesticides to health issues in humans, most recently one that linked household chemicals to decreased effectiveness of vaccines in children. The evidence continues to mount that pesticide are very, very bad and can be linked to a wide variety of serious health issues, unfortunately usually affecting children and the unborn. But I digress . . . Scotts would love nothing more for every household across the country to be have a bland, lush, green lawn; one containing no wildlife, no diversity, a monoculture of turf grass.
As anyone in healthcare can tell you, when you take widespread antibiotics for something like a cold, you only succeed in creating bacteria that learns how to sneak around the antibiotic and become stronger. You also kill off “good” bacteria and flora and open up the human body to attack. When we apply widespread weed killer to lawns and turf, we kill off honeybees, fireflies, butterflies, ladybugs – the good bugs that we want to naturally keep down the destructive bugs as well as contribute to a thriving, diverse ecosystem. We also kill natural plants that songbirds and other wildlife need in order to survive. Obviously, this is not good.
So, this brings me back to the crux of this greenwashing issue. Scotts knows they are despised by most environmentalists. By partnering with a conservation group like NWF, they are able to put the NWF logo on their birdseed and organic products and make more money. This is known as “greenwashing” – when a known polluter wants to be seen by public as a company that cares about the environment and thus hands cash over to a conservation or environmental agency in order to say they are partnered. Many conservation groups are wary of this type of partnership.
The irony of the NWF accepting money from Scotts, a company that makes lawns unsafe for children and animals to play on, while promoting this partnership as a way to get children out of doors and into nature, is not lost on most folks. The NWF has defended the partnership so far, saying it will be mutually beneficial and that there is an opportunity to help Scotts produce more sustainable products. They have also said that NWF and Scotts have some of the same goals, which is to promote out of doors activities and result in better wildlife conservation. Most NWF supporters and environmentalists vehemently disagree with this belief and idea.
I emailed my good friend Linda, a passionate activist, who recently took a job with the Pesticide Action Network to get her thoughts on this matter. She just sent me an article - Scotts was just fined in federal court $4.5 million for selling 73 million units of toxic bird seed from 2005 to 2008. They sold this bird feed with the knowledge that it was tainted with pesticides toxic to birds, information that was provided to them by a pesticide chemist and ornithologist that worked for the company. Scotts also falsified documents with the EPA in order to rush two products back on the market in 2006 – products that contained cancer-causing agents. As the article states, Scotts most likely knew this ruling was going to be revealed for some time, and that the partnership with NWF on January 18th was designed to draw the public’s attention away from the largest fine ever levied on a pesticide company.
So, what is one to do? I think, personally, a place to start is to not buy any Scotts products. Not apply any fertilizer or weed killer to your lawn or garden. When you hear about partnerships between corporations and environmental agencies, just think about what it might really be about and look at the collaboration from all angles. And, consider why a green, perfectly manicured lawn is desirable and where this belief comes from. I suppose my yard might be ugly in some ways and difficult to garden in, but in writing this post I realized that it is certainly full of diverse local wildlife; looking at it that way, it is actually quite beautiful.