J500 Media and the Environment

Okay, which one of you is the corporate spy? by rarab

photo courtesy of flickr.com

Photo courtesy of found_drama

Fellow classmates, the next time we meet for class on Thursday, take a good look at the person sitting to either side of you–chances are one of them is a corporate mole!

At least, that might have been the case if we had held this class between 8 to 10 years ago.

A recent Mother Jones article revealed that several major corporations (among them Wal-Mart and Taco Bell) hired security firms to spy on environmental groups:

A private security company organized and managed by former Secret Service officers spied on Greenpeace and other environmental organizations from the late 1990s through at least 2000, pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings. According to company documents provided to Mother Jones by a former investor in the firm, this security outfit collected confidential internal records—donor lists, detailed financial statements, the Social Security numbers of staff members, strategy memos—from these organizations and produced intelligence reports for public relations firms and major corporations involved in environmental controversies.

The story goes into great detail about the methods these firms used to spy on groups like Greenpeace, and the ominous-sounding Center for Food Safety, methods which mostly consisted of infiltrating groups with undercover agents, leaking information about their efforts to the corporate enemies they were battling, and digging through their trash for financial records and office memos (silly corporate spies, don’t they know environmental groups have minimal waste).

True, this happened years ago (back when we were still searching for the answer to, “Who let the dogs out” Who? Who? Who? I still don’t know…), but that doesn’t mean we should simply forget it.

I mean, we always knew that Wal-Mart liked to spy on its own employees, but is it somehow okay that they were spying on environmentalists, too?

It all makes me think of Adam Werbach’s efforts to green the retail giant. I understand why he would try to “change the system from within,” but at what point do we acknowledge that the “system” is far too nefarious to fix?

That is, I took great offense to Werbach comparing his consumer-friendly revolution to that of previous anti-imperialistic struggles, most notably that of Gandhi in India. As he states:

Gandhi rallied a nation against imperial British rule with the simple and radical call for a march to the sea to make salt.

Gandhi’s call for a salt march was more about sustainability than economics. His purpose was not to alter the marketing patterns of the British Empire, but to show that, through sustainable practices such as creating their own salt or spinning their own cotton they could eventually circumvent–and remove–a powerful empire. Big difference. It’s not like Gandhi was trying to get the British to create a more “colony-friendly” empire–he wanted them gone. So, unless Werbach is secretly trying to bring down Wal-Mart from within, I’m really not too interested in their latest “Green” efforts.

Don’t get me wrong, everyone should be attempting to live a green lifestyle–but I won’t suddenly jump up and down because one of the giant retailers decides to get on board. I’m glad changes are being made, but I think the bigger issue is teaching Americans that they simply don’t have to consume as much as they think they do–and that we can’t “buy” our way out of our environmental problems, no matter how eco-friendly the products are.


6 Comments so far
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Interesting post! What if somebody spies on me or decides this class’s grade based on my green life? That would be scary.

Environmentalism will be never accomplished unless Americans realize its true value. But I also think that many people know the value, but they are not motivated enough to take action.


Comment by sachikom

Scary stuff from the paranoid gov’t types indeed.

In light of your post, I wondered what you thought of this statement from Werbach’s “Blue” speech on April 12:

“We need solutions as big as the problems we face. Despite all of this attention most people are not engaged. Policy change is critical, but it’s not enough. As Jib Ellison told me when I was trying to decide whether to work with Wal-Mart, ‘You can choose not to work with corporations, but then what’s your solution?’

I don’t agree with everything Werbach says, but I understand where he’s coming from when he says that we are a land of consumers; if you want to reach those people with a message of sustainability, it’s going to take talking to them on their level about what they consume. If you run out the gate saying “consume less” it will be a negative message. It’ll need to be a much sexier message than that to get through to consumers.

So, as Werbach says, if changing the corporation isn’t a solution, and as you say, changing consumers to understand they need to consume less, is a solution — then what? -Jen Humphrey

Comment by jenh


I know what you’re saying and I also know there is a large degree of inevitability attached to Werbach’s message…that is, no matter how much I rail against the “corporate” takeover of America, we’ll eventually need them to get on board if we’re going to have any semblance of a future.

Having said that, though, I do take issue with Werbach’s approach. I mean, I resent the fact we are considered a land of consumers…first and foremost we’re a land of people.

Personally, I find this new breed of environmentalism troubling (from the school of thought that brought us The Death of Environmentalism). Taking a market-based campaign for something so important seems a little too reckless to me. What happens when economic trends shift and it’s suddenly no longer appealing to tout “Green” products…will business simply shift back to the cost-effective, damaging ways?

Secondly, these movements based on economic trends tend to overlook many important components of the environmental movement, namely issues of Environmental Justice. By holding focus groups of (let’s face it) mostly white, middle-class citizens, we’re finding out what they deem as important in terms of environmentalism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right…they’re focused on their own jobs and their own pocketbooks (understandably), but we also need to keep the big picture in mind of human rights (not targeting the poor for landfills, for example)…these issues won’t get addressed in such focus groups–it will always be about green jobs and economic gains, so I think we lose a great deal of our movement when we decide to play the corporate game rather than make them bend to our collective will.


Comment by rarab


Yes, we are a land of people, but everyone in this land, black, white, rich, or poor, buy things. You can reach everyone (in this country) through these communication models that are already in place by consumerism.

Let’s also step back for a minute, recognize that consumerism doesn’t have to be an evil thing, and then try to correct the problems within it.

We can not be an agrarian culture, we are going to have to be consumers.

And if we have to be consumers, we have to buy things. Even beyond just the basics of a shelter and sustenance. There are more people than there are jobs in those two industries.

That is why when people are looking at economic trends, one of the indicators is consumer purchases.

Then, let’s also recognize that corporations on their own do more than just white middle class focus groups to figure out what they should care about.

Did the Ronald McDonald’s foundation come through a focus group? Are their good deeds dictated by a focus group?

What about the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation? Is that the product of market research at Microsoft? They do things our own government won’t do.

By not working with companies for a better future seems far more reckless to me. We most likely will be dead from environmental problems before the current green model becomes a billion people movement.


Comment by acbowman


I think I need to make my point clearer…I recognize that we all consume and that it by itself is not an inherently evil thing–it is an inherently selfish act, but not necessarily evil.

The problem I see is that there is far too much emphasis on consumerism and not enough empahsis on humanism. Consumerism–as we know it–is tightly tied to capitalism, and as such its primary focus is the bottom line.

I’m not saying that some corporations haven’t undertaken philanthropic causes on their own volition, but let’s be real, for every Gates Foundation, there are thousands of corporations still using sweatshop labor, paying unfair wages, polluting air and water at the drop of a dime, and pushing off all of those costs onto the rest of us.

I’m fine with working with corporations to become more “green,” but I also think such actions should be mandatory…I don’t see the need to jump up and down and celebrate when a corporation finally does “the right thing.” After all, environmentalism is a matter of self-preservation, so it’s the best interest of all of us to get on board.

The bottom line to me, though, is that the environmental movement has evolved during an age of intense media scrutiny, and rampant consumerism (far worse than before in American society). To me, environmentalism is a form of social justice–it includes human rights that guarantee clean air and water for all, acknlowedges cultural preservation, and respects the principles of sustainability (one of which is the need to cut back on consuming and producing–a very anti-capitalist notion at its core).

I can’t help but think what would have happened to the Civil Rights movement had it come of age now…would it be scrutinized to such an extent? Would focus groups of white middle-class people have said that seeing black people get sprayed with fire hoses was too distasteful? Would they say we should emphasize the jobs that would be created through an integrated society? No, it was too important–it transcended our economic situations to represent something far more human–and far more basic.

Of course, I also look to Gandhi for inspiration on matters of social change, and through his example I see that the best way to make an economic statement is to simply boycott. If we are indeed consumers above and beyond all else, then what better way to exercise our rights in the marketplace by simply choosing not to support products/places that refuse to see the writing on the wall?

Corporations must come around to the green movement, and it’s our duty to help them see the light, but I also think we get more of them on board by threatening to abandon their products altogether unless they make drastic change. I mean, what good is “greening” Wal-Mart if the big chain still deals in unfair wages, dangerous working conditions in sweatshops, and refuses to invest in the local communities? Who cares if they suddenly have cheap compact flourescent light bulbs if they aren’t addressing those bigger issues, as well?


Comment by rarab

[…] Sustaining the Vote May 8, 2008, 8:44 pm Filed under: Business & Government American’s don’t trust Congress. This is not news. But a Gallup poll in July 2007 put Congress at the bottom of a list ranking public confidence in 16 American institutions. According to the poll, American’s put more trust in big business than they do in our legislature. And we definitely don’t have much love for big business. […]

Pingback by Sustaining the Vote « ———————– ** Fresh Green Beans ** ———————– Grown in Kansas. Eaten Worldwide.

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