A network for all who care about the conservation of our world and who want to see it achieved with justice, compassion, dignity and honesty.

Video - 'Undercover with Conservation International.'

Conservation International stands 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.

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

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.

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.


11th May 2011

Bottom Up Thinking - The ugly side of conservation and development

CI screws up

I couldn’t ignore the big scandal about Conservation International’s apparent willingness to greenwash the biggest arms company in the world. That this story should break just after my post In defence of BINGOs is unfortunate.


The scandal raises many issues, but let’s start with the notion of greenwashing. The allegation is that a seat on CI’s ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ somehow absolves a corporation of all their eco-guilt. Whilst to a certain extent CI’s corporate relations officer was clearly peddling that line in the video, I don’t think that anyone really believes that. Just sponsoring a few conservation projects around the world did not give BP a free pass on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greenwashing value of membership of that council is not far off from CI’s price of under $40k per year.

Should we take these guys’ money?

Next up is the question of whether conservation organisations should take big polluters’ money. I’ve been part of groups faced with this question several times. Each time our answer has been: “Yes. We can do something good and worthwhile with this money, and that outweighs any minor symbolic good we would achieve by rejecting it.” As above, we have tended to believe that the greenwashing value of our individual projects is fairly minor, although when put into a portfolio maybe that is less true. But then to overcome that problem we need to face down the tragedy of the commons; my guess is that there’ll always be conservation projects out there will to take the polluters’ grubby cash.

Certainly some organisations, especially campaigning outfits such as Greenpeace, need to steer clear of dirty money lest their campaigns be tainted and undermined. But for on the ground conservation work I am not so sure. What I can tell you is that corporate donors tend to be much more flexible than institutional donors with their myriad rules as to how we can and cannot spend money. So just as the greenwashery may be worth more to the polluter than they are paying, so can the financial support provided be worth more to a conservation project than the headline dollar figure.

Should we even be talking to them?

This kind of suggestion, which unfortunately comes up far too often from deep green types, I find most disappointing. I am very happy that the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are out there screaming from the rooftops about all the eco-crimes being committed around the world, many of them by these big, bad corporations. They are there to keep everyone on their toes, although sometimes they have been known to get it wrong, as with Greenpeace’s complaints about Shell’s plans for disposal of a North Sea oil rig ~15 years ago.

But equally we need to engage with these big companies on less emotionally charged levels and to understand their issues and their concerns. Most people working for these companies are not inherently evil, they are just working from a different starting point than we are. (If environmental degradation externalities are ever priced properly into accounting standards maybe this will change.) Some people work to change from within (the Gorbachev approach), others from without. I think it is right that conservation BINGOs talk to big business. When Greenpeace or someone else gives a company a PR beating (which they probably deserve), then they need to be able to turn to someone to advise them on how to fix it (and not just the PR but their underlying failings too). Importantly, big business needs to believe they can trust this organisation.

In addition, we need to remember that, as with the Asian sweatshops supplying multinational sports good companies, that often the risk aversion of big business, especially with respect to corporate reputation, tends to ensure that they are often far from the worst environmental offenders. Chinese mining and oil companies tend to cause more environmental damage than their western counterparts. We want everybody to improve, but if you beat up on the not-so-bad guys too much, they’ll just pull out leaving the field to the even-worse guys.

The fallout

I have previously discussed NGO accountability on this blog. It seems there is now a new kid on the block to keep us accountable. Overall I think this is probably a good thing. Suggesting, as one commenter did on the Ecologist article, that this is undermining the environmental movement, and that we should instead seek solidarity misses the point: such thinking leads to arrogance and poor responsiveness by BINGOs.

But, nonetheless, apart from the damage done to CI, and, by extension, other conservation NGOs, I am sad about the implications of this exposé. CI were naïve in how they responded to the journalists’ approach. Next time they will be less so, but more caution comes at a price. Lawyers and managerial checks get inserted into the system, gumming it up; conservation BINGOs will be less open in future.

Conservation International clearly need to clean up their act a bit, and I guess the ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ has now lost all credibility. Other conservation NGOs will learn important lessons. But I really hope that after this storm has blown over conservation NGOs continue to engage pro-actively with big business, balancing positive and negative, and that, as a result, big business continues to improve its environmental performance.

18th May 2011

CI’s Defence

Conservation International have hit back at their accusers over the ‘scandal’ of their engagement with big business with CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann’s robust defence of their approach. I note that Seligmann raises many of the same points I did last week.

Seligmann also points fingers of his own, accusing the investigators of using all the usual journalistic dirty tricks of taking things out of context, thus highlighting the supposedly inappropriate elements of the conversati0n without the balance of the safeguards that Seligmann claims CI always seek. There is a simple solution to this; Don’t Panic TV should release the entire recordings and other correspondence that they had with CI, then others can decide for themselves.

On CI’s side, though, they could do with highlighting what specific improvements to business practice have they been instrumental in achieving through their money-spinning engagement with big business. What do they mean by their “expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices”? Without a bit of substance to this CI might appear to be just spinning around the same old greenwash they’ve been accused of providing.

My guess is that the business improvement aspect might have been a bit weak, and that CI and other conservation BINGOs that engage with big business may need to tighten up their acts a little bit. If that happens then this storm in a teacup might have been no bad thing.

25th May 2011

Partnerships for the Planet: Why We Must Engage Corporations


Conservation International (CI) has actively and transparently engaged with corporations for more than 20 years for the purpose of improving environmental practices and preserving the benefits we all receive from nature, like fresh air and clean water. Because the environmental issues facing humanity are massive and complex, we believe that the most effective way to find solutions is to work with other organizations, including corporations, governments and other NGOs. It is simply not sufficient to throw stones from the sidelines; we must work together to address the needs of a rapidly growing global population that is dependent on a fragile and already overstressed environment.

CI's corporate engagement practices have been attacked recently in a so-called "sting." The original article explicitly states that, "There is no suggestion of illegality or wrongdoing on behalf of CI." However, the headlines that accompany the original and follow-on articles are sensationalist and misleading. Moreover, the accusations leveled in the articles are baseless and dishonest. At CI, we take our mission to protect the environment very seriously.
Here are the facts:

A CI employee in London was contacted by two individuals posing as representatives of a defense corporation. The individuals set up an elaborate hoax, including fake identities, a phony corporate website and a made-up inquiry about the corporation's interest in working with CI on conservation projects. They recorded the initial phone conversation and a subsequent lunch meeting.

They then edited these recordings to remove key elements, while using other parts out of context to paint a highly inaccurate, biased and incomplete picture of CI's work with the private sector. Specifically, they omitted discussion of CI's due diligence process and the need to focus on real, technical work that benefits nature and human well-being as the core of any corporate partnership.

The central issue in these articles is whether conservation organizations should engage corporations. We believe that often the biggest improvements to environmental conservation and human well-being can come from effecting change amongst those who have the biggest impact.

Part of that belief in engagement and partnership drives us to have conversations. We absolutely must work together to find new ideas and solutions to the daunting challenges before us. Therefore, we will always come to the table to have conversations -- with communities, with governments, with scientists and with businesses that express an interest in doing their part to help us tackle these challenges. Failure to do so would be irresponsible. What was recorded on the tape and emails was simply an initial conversation with a corporation that approached us. But initial conversations are only a first step in a long process of due diligence about an organization's commitment to environmental leadership.

We challenge and collaborate with companies to improve their business practices and invest in conservation initiatives. Our commitment is to engage with corporations to minimize environmental impact and encourage them to proactively participate in programs to preserve healthy ecosystems and biodiversity; this is in their enlightened self-interest. This is why we created the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business in 2001.

CI's position has always been that corporate financial support -- communicated transparently, directed toward vital conservation programs, and linked to our expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices -- does not compromise our integrity, independence or effectiveness. To this end, we seriously consider the risks and responsibilities of such partnerships, and conduct rigorous due diligence to ensure that the corporations are committed to significant, substantive improvement before we enter into any such partnerships, and to ensure that they maintain their commitment to environmental stewardship.

Our engagement with corporations is a pragmatic effort to create positive change by improving business practices, helping them lessen their environmental impact, and incorporating environmental protection and improvements to human well-being into corporate decision-making. It is not a blessing or stamp of approval.

Ultimately, the answer to the challenges we all face lies in partnership. Together we have created the strains on our planet's ecosystems, and together we are confronting the impacts of these changes. Only together, in partnership, will we harness the innovation, energy, investment and commitment needed to turn the tide, and safeguard nature's essential services for the long term benefit of all people. The knowledge that human well-being, healthy, sustainable economies, and sound business practices are intrinsically linked is what drives CI's corporate engagement strategy.

19th May 2011