“Clean up your act, not your image.” Thus is the slogan of the www.stopgreenwash.org campaign recently launched by none other than Greenpeace International, which seeks to expose the hype behind the shiny, green marketing claims of corporate plunderers in the oil, electricity, automobile, coal, nuclear, and forestry sectors.
Greenpeace should be applauded for challenging the process of “greenwashing,” which has become a major means by which the the world's most powerful and destructive institutions, be they Chevron or the US military, legitimize their most destructive activities. A few small steps this way and that can go very far to gloss over a corporation’s or government's image and hide ongoing environmental crimes. Greenwashing obscures the inherently destructive aspects of industrial capitalism by emphasizing small reforms and innovations while ignoring core processes.
Unfortunately, Greenpeace only rarely resembles radical and uncompromising grassroots environmental NGO of 30 years ago nowadays. And, in recent years, the organization has actively collaborated with various destructive entities in the process of greenwashing their images. For an example of how Greenpeace oft functions as an uncritical corporate applause machine, look no further than Mendocino Redwood Company: the entity that controls more private Mendocino County land than any other.
In April 2014, Greenpeace published a glowing 10-page report on MRC, a company that has recently been under intense criticism due to the enormous timber harvest plans it has filed in and around Albion, Comptche, Elk, Navarro, Ukiah, and other coastal zones. These plans involve removing approximately 40-45 percent of the forest in 700-acre to 1,450-acre swaths of redwood and Doug-fir.
The Greenpeace report is entitled “Mendocino Redwood Company, USA: Showing How FSC Forest Management Can Work.” It appears on the company's web site, as well as in print, and is part of a series of “FSC Case Studies.” In these reports, Greenpeace raised concerns about the “credibility” of the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit sustainability certification entity that Greenpeace itself had had a modest role in founding in the early-'90s. The FSC evaluates and certifies timber operators from California to the Congo as responsible forest stewards based on a series of standards for managing and harvesting land, and those companies in turn sport the FSC logo on their products.
The FSC has come under intense criticism for certifying companies that engage in highly destructive forestry practices. Recently, the FSC even gave its imprimatur to the notorious Green Diamond Resources Company, which is based in Humboldt County, and which owns roughly 400,000 acres within California's north pacific coastal redwood forest region. Green Diamond relies heavily on clear-cutting. Greenpeace finally recognized the FSC's problems to a limited degree in 2008.
“To keep FSC certification as a credible tool to help protect forests, Greenpeace International is publishing a series of case studies exposing controversial operations that are posing the greatest risk to the FSC’s integrity,” Greenpeace's author noted in their preface to the FSC audit reports. “We will also be highlighting best practice operations that are meeting and/or exceeding the FSC’s principles and criteria. These case studies will show the standards that must be consistently met if the FSC is to maintain its credibility.”
I read Greenpeace's glowing report about MRC with keen interest — and with an eye toward its “credibility,” to borrow Greenpeace's framing. I was particularly interested in its seventh page, which appears under the header “Herbicide-Use And Tanoak Under FSC Principle 6.6 – Chemical Use,” for it is on this page that the sole citation of a perspective critical of MRC appears.
“The use of this herbicide today has been the subject of criticism by local stakeholders,” the report acknowledges. This lonely note of criticism is accompanied by a numerical citation, which I followed to the “References” section and discovered to be based on an AVA report I published on December 5, 2012, entitled “Plight of the Beautiful Tree.”
In the piece, I trace the historical evolution of how human cultures in northwestern California have regarded tan oak trees (Lithocarpus densiflora). The Kashia Pomo of northwestern Sonoma and southwestern Mendocino Counties refer to it as “Chishkale,” meaning “beautiful tree.” Northern California pioneers selected their name for it on an altogether more utilitarian basis: Its bark was central to the vast leather tanning industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s, so they dubbed it “tan-oak.”
Today, the timber industry regards this marvelous and sacred organism strictly as weed. They employ a method called “Hack and Squirt” to kill off the trees in lieu of their former practice of aerial broadcast spraying of herbicides. The current practice involves cutting around the base of the trees, peeling back the bark, and spraying a systemic herbicide called Imazapyr into the freshly opened gashes.
It has become a familiar sight throughout Mendocino County in recent years: The leaves on several very large swath of trees suddenly turn brown. The trees — hundreds of them — are suddenly standing dead. The bark turns an orange tint and the leaves, themselves having turned red, drop. Within a few months, the trees’ now-rotting stems become eerily visible, often during the late summer, whereas the leaves on their branches had once covered them. Thousands of acres of tan oaks meet this fate . The practice's public health impacts and impacts on wildlife, which rely heavily on tan oaks for food and other needs, are difficult to quantify.
I published several pieces about the practice in the AVA in 2012, which are available on the AVA web site.
After briefly touching on my piece's criticism of MRC, the Greenpeace author quickly executes a turn-of-phrase and thereupon launches into a careful defense of the company drawing on information culled from MRC's own web site. In one noteworthy portion, the report claims that MRC “plans to phase out the use of the chemical by 2020.”
In January, I interviewed MRC President Mike Jani and asked him if his company is, in fact, committed to eliminating Imazapyr use by 2020. Jani said MRC is not committed to eliminating Imazapyr anytime soon, although he and his cohorts are working to reduce reliance on the chemical. He said he was unfamiliar with the portion of the Greenpeace report that discusses phasing out herbicides.
Misinformation can be toxic. I turned to the section of MRC's web site that the Grenpeace reports cites as the source of its information about elimination of Imazapyr. The cited page is located at http://www.mrc.com/key-policies/herbicides/, under a section called “Key Policies.”
What is the source of the polluting falsehood? Not MRC, it seems. Nowhere on the page does MRC claim to be phasing out herbicide use by 2020.
It is shameful enough for Greenpeace to be putting an entirely happy spin on the logging practices of MRC. I profiled those practices extensively in a piece called “The Lumber Man In Charge of Climate Change Policy” that appeared in the Feb. 11th East Bay Express and Feb. 18th Anderson Valley Advertiser. It is something else altogether for Greenpeace to publish altogether false information in the process of defending such a company.
If Greenpeace had bothered to interview a single MRC critic, the mistake probably would have been avoided. Critics, however, are what a greenwasher most seeks to avoid. Greenpeace should issue a public explanation for the falsehood in their report, then explain why it failed to criticize MRC on any other count.
(Contact Will Parrish at firstname.lastname@example.org.)