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The Money Trail . . . It’s Tough to Keep the Path, and Hands, Truly Clean

For nearly two decades the New England Grows trade show has been among our favorite annual dates on the calendar. For me, it’s where I cut my proverbial teeth in the horticulture industry, first as a landscaper, then as a publisher and television host and in recent years as an activist.

When you’ve been going to the same big party for 20 years you tend to know a lot of people, recognize even more faces and many of those — certainly not all — were smiling my way the past two days in the wake of the perceived “victory” we helped forge against Scotts Miracle Gro. That company, you might have heard, tried to shovel millions of dollars in the direction of the National Wildlife Foundation to whitewash its admission of forged documents among other wrongdoings in federal court.

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SafeLawns led the chorus of organizations protesting the National Wildlife Association’s money grab and, as a result, we heard a lot of “Way to go!” comments on the trade show floor in Boston. We also dealt with a few chemical industry supporters saying “You’ve got a lot of nerve to show your face here,” too, but those folks were clearly in the minority.

At one point we engaged in a lengthy conversation with several folks including Steve Castorini, the co-founder of American Beauties native plants. He has his own partnership with the National Wildlife Federation; funds from the sales of his plants are donated in support of the NWF’s Garden for Wildlife Program.

Steve was clearly annoyed. The National Wildlife Association’s self-imposed stain, by association, isn’t good for his stellar brand and it underminds his good intentions.

“The National Wildlife Federation should have known better,” said Nancy Dubrule-Clement, owner of Natureworks Garden Center for the past 29 years.

THE ISSUE OF NON-PROFIT FOUNDATIONS AND TAINTED MONEY has been all over the news lately, constantly raising the question of whether or not it’s OK for organizations like ours and others to accept funds from sources with less than pure intentions.

The National Wildlife Foundation’s ill-fated dalliance with Scotts Miracle Gro isn’t even close to the biggest story of this week. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure organization, the nation’s largest breast cancer fund, is in hot water right now for withdrawing money from Planned Parenthood. Critics say it was a politically charged decision based on the Republican influence of new leadership that doesn’t like Planned Parenthood’s ties to abortion rights.

Just yesterday word came down that the august Sierra Club, perhaps the nation’s most influential environmentally oriented non-profit, had allegedly accepted $30 million from the natural gas industry without most people knowing. The gas industry is embroiled in a nationwide controversy about an insidious practice known as fracking that imperils underground supplies of fresh water. Some suggest that the gas industry “bought” the defacto endorsement of the previous Sierra Club CEO, Carl Pope, who had campaigned openly in favor of natural gas as an alternative to coal.

IN A PROVOCATIVE ARTICLE, the current CEO of the Sierra Club really got to the heart of the issue that all of us face when we’re trying to fulfill our mission of protecting the planet.

“The first rule of advocacy is that you shouldn’t take money from industries and companies you’re trying to change,” said Michael Brune.

That comment flies in the face of remarks by National Wildlife Federation CEO Larry Schweiger last week, who tried to sell the idea that he could help Scotts Miracle Gro “become a better company” — while simultaneously accepting their money.

That, for many of us, just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Or, as my grandfather would often say, “You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Put another way: Can anyone really rail against an organization when said organization is, at least indirectly, feeding your family?

It’s not easy, though. For years, my former publishing company People, Places & Plants wouldn’t accept advertising dollars from any companies that sold synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and we also eschewed the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe’s because they were seen to be bad competition for our core customer — the family owned garden center.

Our publication and television show often suffered financially due to the stubborn refusal to change our standards. At SafeLawns, our corporate sponsorships and private membership funds have never quite recovered from the economic crash of 2008; we could do so much more with more money from the chemical companies who, in our view, are trying to “greenwash” their image by an association with us.

In 2010, when the Sierra Club changed CEOs and stopped taking money from the natural gas industry, reports say that many jobs within the organization were lost — thereby potentially diminishing the organization’s ability to do good things. It’s a valid argument, one to which many adhere.

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And the money aside, we all need partnerships to get by in this world. In a perfect world all of our friends, family and business associates would share the same ideals and ethics. But we all know about the world’s imperfections.

The Komen for the Cure folks, for example, have been lauded for practically inventing the idea of cause marketing. In their case they allow companies to “wear” the pink ribbon in exchange for a marketing program that leads to a donation back to Komen. In many cases those programs have worked well, helping to fund hundreds of thousands of breast exams annually.

In other cases, Komen’s motives have been brought into question. Allowing KFC to run long with a “Bucket for the Cure” campaign didn’t go over well with the critics who thought fried chicken wasn’t the optimum dietary supplement for heart patients and cancer survivors. They charged KFC with “pinkwashing,” in other words trying to veil its unhealthy food with the Komen association.

AT THE END OF THE DAY, IT’S ALL ABOUT being able to walk down the aisle of a trade show, a local grocery store and most importantly your family’s dinner table with your head held high. Many times in my life and career that dinner table could have been more amply covered if I had made different decisions in my business affiliations.

We’re not perfect here. Far from it. I know we’ve made questionable decisions, too.

Be we do think the Sierra Club’s Michael Brune has it right. If you’re an activist or non-profit that really wants to make a difference in the world, you need to roll up your sleeves . . . and keep your hands as clean as possible.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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