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ENVIRONMENT: Activist Resigns as McDonald’s Takes ‘Green’ Seat

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Jun 3 2003 (IPS) - The recent appointment of fast food giant McDonald’s to the advisory board of an environmental group has drawn accusations of ”green washing” from environmentalists and led one board member to resign in protest. But both the company and the group strongly deny the accusations.

The recent appointment of fast food giant McDonald’s to the advisory board of an environmental group has drawn accusations of ”green washing” from environmentalists and led one board member to resign in protest. But both the company and the group strongly deny the accusations.

Paul Hawken, a well-known activist and environmentalist respected for his strong opposition to corporate globalisation, resigned two weeks ago from the Green Business Network (GBN), a Washington-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that says it is working to make businesses adopt better environmental practices.

“McDonald’s doesn’t have the expertise, the credibility or the values to be on the steering committee of a green business,” Hawken, a board member since the NGO started its operation in 2000, told IPS in an interview.

Hawken and many other activists criticise the Illinois-based company for offering children unhealthy food that contains too much fat and sugar. They refer to scientific research that links fast food to childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

The critics charge that McDonald’s gets involved with green NGOs to win them over to its side so that its business model will not be changed or challenged.


”We can welcome any supply chain improvements McDonald’s engenders, without anointing them with a green label,” Hawken, author of ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ and ‘Natural Capitalism’, said in his resignation letter.

GBN is part of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation and operates its main activity, the greenbiz.com website, from Oakland in the state of California.

The site offers companies advice on how to become environmentally and socially friendly. On the GBN advisory board sit firms including Coca Cola, International Paper, AT&T, and Kleenex maker Kimberly-Clark. But Hawken says that McDonald’s stands out.

“My objection is that the appointment absolutely undermines the credibility of the organisation and the green movement as a whole,” he said. ”It’s like putting a child molester on the board of an orphanage.”

”How can you ‘bring information resources to help align environmental responsibility with success’ (the GBN mission) when the company in question is knowingly destroying two of the most important environments there are: our children and farmlands,” wrote Hawken in his letter.

Many nutritionists, green groups and environmentalists are angry at McDonald’s, which has 30,000 restaurants in 121 countries, for, among many reasons, targeting children and adults alike with massive advertisement campaigns for unhealthy food.

The company, which serves some 46 million people daily around the world, spends about two billion U.S. dollars a year creating advertising designed to get children hooked on fatty and sugary meals, they say.

Hawken’s resignation quickly became news among anti-globalisation activists, who say they are worried that some groups and companies are trying to exploit the space created by years of hard lobbying from environmentalists and public health activists.

“They (McDonald’s) think they can become a sustainable corporation by joining groups like that,” said Anuradha Mittal of the California-based Food First. “It makes a joke of the whole debate about sustainability because it’s now without any concept of human rights.”

But both McDonald’s and GBN strongly deny the ”green washing” accusations.

Joel Makower, GBN founder and strategy director, attributed the difference with Hawken and other activists, to ”language”.

”When you come right down to it, this whole thing is largely semantic,” he said. ”Paul (Hawken) believes that green should be associated with something larger than the environment.”

Makower said his group is not promoting McDonald’s health and environmental track record.

”Are we making any claims about McDonald’s? Absolutely not,” he said. “Are we holding them up as an example of the greenest of the green companies? Absolutely not.”

McDonald’s too says that it did not seek the appointment but was invited by GBN as a way to share its experience in social responsibility.

The company says it has no immediate plans to use its GBN link to advertise its environmental record.

”It’s not what’s in it for McDonald’s,” Bob Langert, senior director of social responsibility at the company, told IPS. ”It’s what we can do to help the cause and the mission of Green Business Network.”

But Hawken says the company brandishes its membership in and contributions to some environmental groups as evidence of its “social responsibility,” which is not accurate.

”McDonald’s contributes money to many groups in this age of imploding foundations,” he said.

”They get in and then use the names (of green groups) backwards in their social responsibility reports; they used all the organisations that they contributed money to.”

The company says money had nothing to do with the appointment and that it only contributed five thousand dollars to the group’s budget of 325 thousand dollars.

But other activists agree with Hawken. “It’s a fact that they can use this in their self-done social responsibility report,” said Mittal. “McDonald’s tried to show how much they put back to the community but failed to mention how much money they paid to place advertisements near schools and get school children into their system.”

The company issued its inaugural Social Responsibility Report last year with much fanfare.

”Are we perfect?” asked Langert. ”Absolutely not. Can we do more in the future? Yes we can. We are committed to doing more,” he added, suggesting his company is ready for more dialogue with its critics.

”I think that rather than people launching attacks and shutting the door on companies like McDonald’s, I always believe that open education and dialogue is the best to make progress in a society,” he said. ”And I think more of that needs to happen.”

Hawken says that by naming McDonald’s to the advisory board – a role that implies the company has set environmental standards – GBN is exalting the corporation.

”That’s like, ‘Whoa, these people have made it’. But what I am saying is that they don’t have it. And therefore, it’s tantamount to green washing.”

 
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ENVIRONMENT: Activist Resigns as McDonald’s Takes ‘Green’ Seat

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Jun 3 2003 (IPS) - The recent appointment of fast food giant McDonald’s to the advisory board of an environmental group has drawn accusations of ”green washing” from environmentalists and led one board member to resign in protest. But both the company and the group strongly deny the accusations.
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