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.

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.

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.

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Amidst Wildlife Federation Firestorm, Scotts Miracle Gro Fined $4.5 Million for Toxic Bird Seed, Falsifying Records

UPDATE: Petition Asks NWF to Say No to Scotts’ Sponsorship:


On the same week Scotts Miracle Gro tried to buy an image upgrade by sponsoring the National Wildlife Federation, word has come out of a federal court that the company will pay millions of dollars in fines for selling bird seed it knew was tainted with pesticides toxic to birds.

Though the company had no comment yesterday, it pleaded guilty to charges that it sold 73 MILLION UNITS of tainted bird seed from 2005 to 2008. According to an article in today’s Columbus, Ohio, newspaper, the company continued to sell the bird seed “despite warnings in the summer and fall of 2007 from a pesticide chemist and an ornithologist, both of whom worked for the company.”

The company also pleaded guilty yesterday to falsifying documents with the Environmental Protection Agency so that it could rush new weed ‘n feed and ant killing products to market back in 2006. When Scotts’ fallacy was revealed — after the products containing cancer-causing agents had already been on the market for two years — the company blamed the actions on a single female employee, who was abruptly fired after years with the company.

Many in and around the company called her an obvious “scapegoat,” who unjustifiably took the blame for an error that could not possibly have been hers and hers alone. In a 2008 article in the same Columbus newspaper, Scotts spokesman Jim King admitted the fired employee had a supervisor who reviewed her work, but the supervisor was not terminated according to people within Scotts.

“There aren’t very many people working for Scotts in that end of the company,” said our colleague at Scotts who asked not to be named. “But I knew the woman who was let go very well and it would be completely out of character for her to knowingly falsify records.”

When SafeLawns phoned the woman this morning, she pleasantly declined comment, as she has done previously with other media inquiries.

Meanwhile, our phone and email in-box has been lit up today as the story of Scotts’ latest transgression spreads across North America.

The company, many folks believe, must have known this ruling in federal court was coming down for several months. The timing of the sponsorship with the National Wildlife Federation, announced by NWF on Jan. 18, was clearly designed to draw attention away from what is believed to be the largest fine ever levied on a pesticide company.

“It is whitewashing at the highest, most obvious level,” said Rand Jordan. “I’ve yanked my NWF habitat sign out of my backyard. I’ll never, ever support them again.”

Many called on the National Wildlife Federation to return Scotts’ money and demand that the world’s largest purveyor of lawn and garden poisons change its ways.

“I’m sickened. Just sickened about the whole thing,” said Sue Leonard of Fort Worth, Texas.

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Citing Guilty Plea, Wildlife Federation Ends Agreement with Scotts

SafeLawns followers are celebrating a victory today.

Succumbing to a barrage of criticism from the environmental community — and in the wake of a guilty plea from Scotts Miracle Gro in federal court — the National Wildlife Federation announced to members this afternoon that is would end its sponsorship deal with the world’s largest purveyor of toxic lawn and garden products.

The announcement of a promotional deal between Scotts and NWF posted 10 days ago confounded thousands of followers of the organization known for its environmental stewardship programs. The organization’s leadership steadfastly defended its deal last week, but apparently had no idea that Scotts Miracle Gro would soon plead guilty last Thursday to charges of falsifying documents and selling bird seed tainted with pesticides that are toxic to birds.

At approximately 4 p.m. today, Ed Coleman, the general manager of customer service at NWF, issued this statement:

“The National Wildlife Federation has worked together with Scotts Miracle-Gro over the past two years on programs to educate gardeners about global warming, connect children to the outdoors and help restore habitat following the Gulf oil disaster. Both parties recently announced plans for an even broader partnership that was based on our common interests.

“Since that time, Scotts announced a pending legal settlement related to events in 2008 that predate our partnership, which has made it clear that the partnership is not viable. Therefore, NWF and Scotts will work together to end the partnership in a friendly and mutually beneficial way.

“National Wildlife Federation appreciates your continuing support.”

Coleman also posted his email ( and phone number (703-438-6205) with the message.

Reaction was celebratory, even euphoric, from SafeLawns followers who have been emailing, phoning and protesting in various ways in the past week.

“We won!” said Marie Ross. “This proves the power of social media once again.”

“It’s too bad it took the federal court case for the NWF to come to its senses, but at least it did,” said Jonathan R. Douglass.

Many others thanked SafeLawns directly for helping to lead a charge last week with a series of postings about the story.

“Thanks, Paul, for all you do,” said a message from a group known as StopPesticidesinNeedham. “I suspect all our letters combined with the reality that Scotts is such a dirty company made the NWF realize this was not good.”

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As Wildlife Federation Defends Its Greed, Scotts Continues to Assault Our Sensibilities

Did any of you catch the beleaguered CEO of the National Wildlife Federation defiantly attempt to justify his recent deal with Scotts Miracle Gro that we reported on earlier today? Looking more like a man who will probably be forced to resign soon than someone we ought to trust with our important environmental decisions, Larry Schweiger declared, “I will not apologize for working with Scotts.”

The full interview, conducted awkwardly by long-time NWF staffer Kevin Coyle, can be watched here: It really does come off as an incredibly interesting case study of an organization that just made the worst public relations move of its career — with little or no skill set in place for spin control. Every time Coyle tried to ask Schweiger about the toxicity of Roundup and weed ‘n feed, the CEO grimaced and said, “We don’t have to agree on everything in order to work together to find answers to the tough problems.”

Time and time again in the interview Schweiger insisted that it was better to deal with this devil, Scotts Miracle Gro, from close range. That way, he said, he can help Scotts become better environmental citizen.

“They want to change. They want to be a better company,” said Schweiger.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Jim Hagedorn, the CEO of Scotts Miracle Gro, signed up for that ringing endorsement when he signed the check over to Schweiger. Do you really think Hagedorn thinks his company needs to improve its environmental record?

More likely, though, Hagedorn wasn’t watching Schweiger squirm. Instead he was probably paying close attention in Florida today where his company is leading a fierce battle to overturn that state’s many bans on the applications of lawn fertilizer containing nitrogen. The fertilizer runs off during the rainy season and creates massive blooms of red-tide. That’s bad for the state’s fishing and tourism industry — something you think the National Wildlife Federation should care about — but a ban on the fertilizers in the nation’s second largest lawn care market has been also bad for Scotts’ bottom line.

Think about that. On the very day Schweiger defends Scotts in front of a camera looking like his tie is three clenches too tight, Scotts is a few states away making Schweiger’s decision looking more asinine by the hour.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club asked everyone in Florida to take a look at this map that shows where the fertilizer runoff is having a huge impact: Wouldn’t disseminating that kind of information be a better use of NWF’s time than defending its recent money grab?

Near the end of the interview Schweiger insisted that he’s been an environmental activist his whole career for the sake of his grandkids — like the kids everywhere who roll around in lawn care poisons at 30 million homes from Maine to California.

It seems to me, if I could make a suggestion to the National Wildlife Federation, that there’s an real opportunity at hand here if Mr. Schweiger really does care about his progeny and the planet.

He needs to stand up tall — and loud — and say he’s sorry. He needs to say he made a bad decision in taking the Scotts money. He needs to say he won’t take another dollar from Scotts or any company like it until the companies stop making products that can poison his grandkids.

That would effect change. That would (or might) MAKE Scotts take notice. That would fulfill the mission of the National Wildlife Federation and restore the trust for tens of thousands of supporters who were disillusioned this week.

Until he does that the tie is only going to get tighter.

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Miracle Gro Deal with Wildlife Federation Outrages Environmental Community

The attempted whitewashing by the chemical companies has been rampant lately. First TruGreen ChemLawn tried to buy public opinion by sending millions of dollars to Earth Day. Then Scotts Miracle Gro did buy out Major League Baseball.

SafeLawns and its allies were able to block the insidious ChemLawn deal with Earth Day, but Major League Baseball didn’t flinch under a barrage of comments and still hangs “Scotts is Used Here” banners in Major League Baseball ballparks to give homeowners the illusion that they can have Fenway Park in their back yard just by dumping on some weed ‘n feed.

Now Scotts Miracle Go is at it again. In the past two days word has come down that the world’s largest purveyor of lawn chemical poisons has bought its way into the National Wildlife Federation’s heart. This is the non-profit organization that is supposed to be protecting our wildlife and promoting a healthy lifestyle, yet NWF is now grabbing fistfuls of cash from the very company that makes heading outdoors unhealthy for our kids.

The environmental community is outraged.

“As far as I’m concerned, there is no amount of greenwashing in the world that can clean up the reputation of Scotts,” wrote Carole Brown of Native Plants Wildlife Gardens. “Why would the National Wildlife Federation want to enter into this deal with the devil? Well, they’re a non-profit organization that exists through the generosity of their donors. And what better way to fill their coffers than to enter into an agreement with a company that generates billions of dollars of profits every year? Who cares if that company makes those billions from dumping tons and tons of chemical herbicides and pesticides into our lawns and gardens, which then runs off wreaking havoc with our streams and watersheds? I care!”

We first heard about this yesterday from our friend and colleague, Joe Lamp’l, the host of Growing a Greener World on PBS. As we were touring our organic lawn trials at the University of Maryland, Joe told us the blogs were afire and folks were calling on SafeLawns to help draw attention to an obvious miscarriage of social justice.

Many other associates began calling us, too, and then posting their opinions on the National Wildlife Foundation Facebook page. Emotions are clearly raw.

“I really really looked up to the NWF as a kid (which I became aware of through reading Ranger Rick!!), and hoped someday I could have a yard certified as a NWF approved backyard habitat,” wrote poster Mary Lai. “It really breaks my heart to see the NWF partner up with a company like Scotts Miracle Gro. I know the economy is going through lean times, but this just isn’t the right way to get funding. ”

Many were calling on friends, followers and colleagues to make life miserable for the NWF. It was the kind of tactic that got Earth Day to cave two years ago and rescind the ChemLawn money. Some suggest tweeting a message to NWF on twitter, including @NWF in your message, or calling NWF: 1-703-438-6000 to chat with the organization’s headquarters.

It’s obvious the NWF is already taking note of the concern and the organization’s PR team is out in force defending its decision and claiming that taking the cash doesn’t equate to a defacto endorsement of Scotts Miracle Gro or its products.

But, of course, it does.

Our board at SafeLawns has long insisted that we review the product offerings of the companies from whom we accept corporate sponsorships. And even though companies like Scotts Miracle Gro do offer a smattering of so-called organic products these days, the vast majority of their stuff is wildly polluting and incredibly toxic for our pets and our kids. So we’d never accept their money under any circumstances. The National Wildlife Federation shouldn’t, either — not until Scotts Miracle Gro stands up and denounces the production, distribution and sale of its products like Roundup, weed ‘n feed, Bug Be Gone and all the myriad products that have been proven to be toxic.

My gut feeling here is that NWF won’t cave to the pressure and it will keep the money. They’ll justify it when they crawl into bed at night with the notion that they’re “cleaning up” Scotts dirty profits. A lot of non-profits feel this way; they don’t care where the money comes from as long as they do good things with the money. Do you think the Catholic church does a background check on everyone before it passes the hat down the pew? Well, neither do most other organizations who otherwise try to do good work with whatever cash they can scrape together.

I’ve also heard impassioned arguments from folks I respect greatly who feel that it’s best to work with the worst environmental offenders from the inside out. Recently I heard Peter Seligmann, the charismatic founder of Conservation International, explain his decision to accept money and other support from WalMart several years ago. The result of his efforts was WalMart’s decision to adopt numerous green initiatives and the company is now the largest seller of organic food in the world.

Seligmann’s well-thought-out “keep your environmental enemies close” strategy has helped effect real change, in other words. WalMart may still be doing some bad stuff, but it’s better than it used to be. That’s how begrudgingly difficult progress happens.

The real problem in the Scotts Miracle Gro marriage with National Wildlife is that nothing in NWF’s rhetoric, so far at least, acknowledges that Scotts Miracle Gro has heretofore been killing the environment. Nothing in the press release states that there’s a goal in place to reduce environmental toxins sold by its newfound benefactor. All NWF appears to be presenting is a series of events that gives Scotts a chance to pretend to give a damn about the environment.

Scotts Miracle Gro continues to claim publicly that its products are safe when used as directed — and the whole damn environmental community knows it’s a lie. NWF knows it’s a lie, too.

So, yes. Please post your opinions to the NWF Facebook page. Leave a message on the organization’s web site:

If NWF is going to keep this money then we need to make the organization understand just how soiled we think it has become.

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