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Corporate Greenwash at EU Environment Meet?

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jun 2 2010 (IPS) - Coca-Cola, recently indicted for causing serious damage to water and soil in India, might seem like an odd champion of environmental protection.

Yet the global beverages giant was given a platform to present itself as ecologically progressive by one of the European Union’s (EU) most powerful bodies.

The public relations exercise on Jun. 2 did not go unchallenged. As Salvatore Gabola, a representative of Coca-Cola Europe, started to address ‘Green Week’, an annual EU conference, he was interrupted by a group of protestors. Unfurling two large banners in Coke’s trademark colours of red and white, the group chanted slogans accusing the corporate-dominated event of “dirty greenwash”.

One protestor, who gave her name as Anne, said that this was the third year in a row that the European Commission had contracted Friends of Europe, “a corporate-sponsored think tank,” to organise one of the main debates in Green Week.

Polluting companies do not “have any right to influence the environmental debate in Europe,” the protestor added.

Last month several campaign groups wrote to the Commission, objecting to how Coca-Cola was a sponsor of Green Week.

These groups – including Friends of the Earth, the India Resource Centre and Corporate Europe Observatory – noted that an investigation ordered by the state of Kerala in India had concluded in March that Coke had severely depleted the local water supply and contaminated its water and soil.

The committee undertaking the investigation recommended that Coke be fined 48 million US dollars over the activities of its bottling plant at Plachimada, which has been closed since 2004 following local objections to its effects on the region’s water resources.

Friends of Europe, the event organiser, was founded in 1999 and relies heavily on corporate funding for its work. Describing itself as the “most dynamic think tank” in Brussels, it is led by Giles Merritt who doubles up as a journalist and corporate lobbyist.

Among Merrit’s more controversial clients have been the cigarette-maker Philip Morris and numerous weapons manufacturers. Because his events regularly attract top officials and decision makers, he was listed as one of the 30 people bearing the most influence over the EU institutions by ‘The Financial Times’ last year.

The decision to involve Friends of Europe in the organisation of Green Week comes despite a row in which it has been embroiled with the European Commission.

Merritt has refused to enter details of his activities into a register of lobbyists set up by the EU executive, nominally to boost understanding of how corporate interests often shape the Union’s laws and policies. Merritt has insisted that think tanks should not be categorised as lobbying outfits.

Janez Potocnik, Europe’s environment commissioner, told IPS that he did not regard Friends of Europe’s boycott of the register as a reason to “cease cooperation” with it. “Green Week should remain a forum where all views can be exchanged,” Potocnik said.

Apart from Coca-Cola, this week’s event also featured the Brazilian sugarcane industry association Unica. It has successfully lobbied the Commission to promote the greater use of biofuels to power cars and trucks.

Ecologists have complained that it is deeply ironic that Unica was invited to make recommendations on preserving the diversity found in nature when it has been promoting monoculture in Brazil to the detriment of ecosystems hosting a rich abundance of flora and fauna.

During his presentation, Unica’s Emmanuel Desplechin argued that sugarcane in Brazil is “grown in a way that preserves biodiversity” and that “economic growth and environmental stewardship can go hand in hand.”

Stora Enso, a Scandinavian paper and packaging firm, was another participant in Green Week. Stora Enso has been accused of pursuing an aggressive strategy of expanding eucalyptus plantations in South America. In Brazil, it has been seeking to usurp laws limiting foreign ownership of land near the country’s border with Uruguay and Argentina by using a local shell company to acquire territory.

But the closest that Herbert Pircher, a vice-president with Stora Enso, came to acknowledging that his firm had a tarnished environmental record during his speech was when he stated that “business is not known to be trustworthy when telling stories.”

BP, the oil giant widely blamed for the major ecological catastrophe now besetting the Gulf of Mexico, is also a sponsor of Friends of Europe, although it did not provide a speaker for the event organised this week.

Willy de Backer, a Friends of Europe spokesman, said that his group had set up a forum known as Greening Europe to encourage debate about environmental policy. Corporations joining this forum pay a subscription of 16,000 euro (19,600 dollars) to 50,000 euro (61,000 dollars), he explained. While these companies can suggest topics for discussions, he said that they could not set the terms for the discussions.

De Backer argued that his forum was playing a constructive role as it is helping corporations to pay greater heed to nature conservation. “We have had big difficulties finding business partners because biodiversity is not a big issue for them,” he said.

“We need to get business around the table and we tell them they have to be ready for critical questions,’’ De Becker said. ‘’We are not doing any greenwashing, we are not giving companies a lobbying platform.”

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