ChemLawn’s New PR Blitz: They Just Don’t Get It
On March 10, TruGreen/ChemLawn announced a million-dollar sponsorship of Earth Day. On March 18, TruGreen/ChemLawn made national news by agreeing to the second-highest fine ever levied against a lawn care company ($500,000). On March 19, the company rushed out a national public relations blitz in which it trumpeted “targeted, environmentally friendly options.”
This new release, circulated broadly on a fee-based wire service known as PRNewswire, features a video that must be seen to be believed. The company is shown applying its products just a few feet from a lake, with a lawn that slopes right to the water: http://multivu.prnewswire.com/mnr/trugreen/37516/. Every watershed association in North America should use this latest video as Exhibit A in the public court of appeal not to use a lawn care service that just doesn’t get it.
Does Earth Day Foundation president Kathleen Rogers and her Board of Directors need to do anything more than watch this video to reach a reasonable conclusion that this company doesn’t have a clue? It reminds me of a scene from A Chemical Reaction that details ChemLawn’s ill-fated fight with the tiny town of Hudson, Quebec. Inside the Supreme Court of Canada, just as the court was about to hand down a 9-0 ruling in favor of Hudson, ChemLawn’s lead lawyer, Gerard Dugre, stated for a media throng: “It’s never been proven that these products pose any risk to the health of humans.” Take a look at just this one document from the Ontario College of Family Physicians if you think that ChemLawn statement is true: http://www.ocfp.on.ca/English/OCFP/Communications/Publications/default.asp?s=1.
Dr. Kirk Hurto, a 30-year ChemLawn employee, appears in the video trotted out yesterday. He looks and sounds like a guy you can trust, until he opens his mouth. A quick Internet search reveals these nuggets espoused by Dr. Hurto:
1) “Insecticide is used only when needed,” he said when defending his company’s practices to CNN. That’s an outright lie. For years, ChemLawn’s annual applications included blanketing the landscape with “preventative” insecticides.
2) “Our programs are designed to be environmentally responsible, and TruGreen’s professionally trained route managers make certain that our products stay on lawns and out of waterways,” he said in defending his company to Pro, a trade journal that was evaluating the likelihood of a Canadian style pesticide ban ever coming to the U.S. Just last Thursday, the company was fined $500,000 by the state of New York for applying pesticides near water, on windy or rainy days, by untrained workers.
3) “We have to be realistic about what consumers want. This is a business,” he said to U.S. News & World Report when defending his company’s application rate of 4.5 pounds of nitrogen per thousand square feet for lawns, when research indicated than only 3 pounds was needed. In other words, if the customers want a green lawn, ChemLawn damn well plans to give it to them no matter what.
4) “There is no difference between the biological soil profile of a lawn treated with a chemical lawn program vs. a natural lawn program,” he said, when defending his programs to a Northeastern water quality convention. An ocean of evidence points to the contrary; I once asked Soil Food Web scientist Paul Wagner if you could see the difference between chemically treated soil and organically treated soil under a microscope. He laughed out loud as if that were the funniest question he had ever heard. We then filmed the difference with our own cameras. Naturally treated soil is full of organic matter and living organisms; soil treated with synthetic chemicals loses much of its biological — and therefore sustainable — diversity.
It truly is difficult to understand how a seemingly nice guy like Hurto can make it through 30 years believing that his company has really been right all long. It’s as if these fines are taken as mere slaps on the wrist; you can almost hear the senior members of the ChemLawn management team laughing at the world from their billion-dollar perch, as if they think they’re too big to touch, or just plain smarter than us.
I’ve said it a thousand times in public. I’m not here to put any company out of business. If ChemLawn would truly denounce its own programs of the past and truly offer a 100 percent organic solution all the time, I’d retire as a lawn chemical antagonist. Right now, though, they’re just greenwashing their chemical programs by saying they offer a 100 percent organic solution. As Hurta said himself just last year, “The demand for our natural program has not been strong” and is therefore rarely used. To quote a ChemLawn employee who came to my neighbors’ home recently, “We do offer an organic option, but it doesn’t work as well as the chemicals and it costs more.” If you’re an unsuspecting homeowner, how would you react to that sales pitch? Sign me up? Probably not.
Even if we do give ChemLawn the benefit of the doubt and accept the idea that they really do want to promote their organic options, we must still ask the question: is Earth Day an acceptable vehicle for this messaging?Companies really shouldn’t be able to have it both ways. Either they’re environmentally friendly, or they’re not. For now, the unanimous verdict is still in for TruGreen/ChemLawn. Earth Day needs to make the tough decision to give the money back.