What Were They Thinking?

Any therapist or self-help guru will tell you upfront, you can’t get into a relationship thinking that you can change the other person. They will tell you that this is an exhausting, destructive predicament that will lead to heartbreak rather than the outcome that you had wished for. They will warn you off of making a further commitment. So will your best friend, your mom, and your great aunt Jean.

Yesterday, I learned that the National Wildlife Federation has aligned with Scotts, the company responsible for manufacturing several garden and agricultural toxins, including Miracle Gro and Roundup. Those of you who are familiar with this beloved environmental protection group will likely have the same reaction that I did. How? How can they champion for the environment with a massive environmental polluter as a beneficiary?

Where was their great aunt Jean when they needed her?

I don’t always hold myself back before making snap assessments and judgements, and it was in the spirit of hearing how they could possibly justify this partnership that I tuned in at 1pm EST today to watch and listen as NWF CEO Larry Schweiger spoke live and online about the decision and what it means for the future of the organization forward. Although the presentation left me cold and disappointed, I can’t say I was surprised to hear a whole lot of spin as well as some pretty conflicting talking points. Like anyone that has entered into a bad relationship with the misguided assumption that they can affect change from the inside, it seems as if the NWF have their head in the clouds and don’t really know what in the hell they are doing.

To add further insult to injury, I was informed via Twitter later this afternoon that they had rearranged their Facebook page [note that my link takes you inside, beyond the splash page] so that you have to switch views to see the plethora of dissenting comments and making it a more convoluted process to add a comment. Tricksy. The message is clear, “We care what you, our members and supporters think about this partnership. Psych!

So many people have already eloquently and passionately written about this debacle, including The Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens website that has published two very thorough posts on this case. [1 | 2]

I urge you to read the exhaustive background information that they’ve provided as well as some of the writers below. And as always your thoughts on this are very welcome in the comments below.

Further Reading:

  • Follow some of the discussion on Twitter via the #NWF hashtag.
  • Margaret at Away to Garden has a discussion going. This comment in particular makes a good point about the state of the gardening industry as it relates to sponsorship by chemical giants like Scotts.
  • Benjamin Vogt has written a very heartfelt summary of why this is important.


Today’s Columbus Dispatch has published a piece revealing that Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. plead guilty to charges that between 2005 and 2008 it sold 73 MILLION UNITS of bird seed coated in insecticides that are, “extremely toxic to fish and toxic to birds and other wildlife.”

Documents state that Scotts continued to sell the products despite warnings in the summer and fall of 2007 from a pesticide chemist and an ornithologist, both of whom worked for the company.

Please see The Columbus Dispatch and SafeLawns.Blog for more.

All of this follows on the extremely well-timed heels of a Scotts & National Wildlife Federation “Save the Songbird” campaign that includes on location events and social media outreach that began to appear on Twitter just two days ago. Since Scotts knowingly sold millions of units of a toxic poison that was then unknowingly distributed across North American backyards, I wonder: Are Scotts really interested in “saving the songbirds” or saving their dirty image and making a buck?

This also leads us back to the National Wildlife Federation’s defence of this partnership as a chance to affect change within the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. How can a company that knowingly sells a product that is toxic to the very wildlife it claims to nurture and support, be seen as poised to make changes that could hurt their bottom line?

For more on this story, see Treehugger and The National Wildlife Association CEO Larry Schweiger’s open letter.

UPDATE (JAN 29, 2012.):

The National Wildlife Federation have announced via their website that they will be ending their relationship with Scotts, citing the Songbird scandal as the reason behind this action. Read their statement here.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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51 thoughts on “What Were They Thinking?

  1. What a bunch of S#$%…obviously Scott’s must have paid the National Wildlife Federation a ton of $$$. Is the no group or person who can’t be bought? I hate this!

    • Interestingly enough the CEO stated in the webcast that it wasn’t a significant amount of money… I am paraphrasing but that’s the gist of it. He spoke about how they have lots of other donors as well as corporate partners.

      My question is why would they do it for an insignificant amount of money and I’m not even sure how that matters. It felt like he was trying to claim that it wasn’t much money, therefore the potential impact the money could have on the organization would be lessened.

      It left me feeling the same way… Who can’t be bought these days?

  2. So, then my question is..who got a ton of $$ under the table. Surely, the National Wildlife Federation would have expected fallout…unless it is more of a business than a non-profit. No donations from me!

    • They did say that they expected some negative reactions, but I wonder if they expected it to be as strong as it has been. Will be interesting to see how they proceed in the coming days.

  3. Wait, so if Scott’s makes Round-up, doesn’t that mean they are also owned by/aligned with Monsanto? Big, evil, Agent-Orange-producing, small-farmer-crushing, heirloom-veggie-’patenting’ Monsanto?! I mean, Scott’s alone is a horrendous decision, but Monsanto…that’s like announcing that you’ve partnered up with Darth Vader. What the hell?!

  4. This saddens me, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. I’ll continue to not purchase Scotts products and encourage others not to.

    I too listened to the webcast and thought it was complete hogwash. I’d like to know what amount Scotts did donate, they never clarified that amount. I’m guessing their view of “small” and mine are quite different.

    Ironically, in my inbox yesterday, I found an e-mail from NWF begging for funds to help them fight corporate pollution.

    • I received my Membership Renewal yesterday. There is not a single mention of Scotts. But they sure as heck want my money: $10 all the way up to $500

      They should lose their non-profit status!

  5. That call yesterday was such complete B.S. It’s not “much” money, but we’ll sacrifice our reputation for it? Suuurrre. I also rolled my eyes at the point when Schweiger says that Scotts wants to change and NWF can help them. What, exactly, was stopping Scotts from changing before if they *really* wanted to? The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

    • Making change from the inside is the most commonly used argument for aligning with an inappropriate partner… I’ve never seen this work. You’re in the relationship now and making them look good. How exactly will they be compelled to change within a dynamic that suits them? Accepting the money and co-partnering initiatives gives the clear impression that NWF endorses everything Scotts does and manufactures. The sort of people the NWF want to reach will no longer be reachable. It’s not like they can put disclaimers on their campaigns.

      No, Scotts come out way on top here. Thinking that change can happen from within is willful naivete.

  6. January 25, 2012
    National Wildlife Federation has officially committed it’s own demise in the hearts and minds of many of it’s now past supporters and true environmentalists. NWF has been laid to rest under a thick bed of genetically modified chemical laced glyphosate resistant (RoundUp) Kentucky Blue grass provided by their new partner, Scotts Miracle-Gro with support from Monsanto Corporation.

    Rest in peace and by all means please stay off the grass.

  7. I’ve been trying to see all sides of the argument by engaging with gardeners that use chemicals in their gardens. So far I haven’t seen the other side. Even with the acceptance of chemical use, the BFF status of Scotts to Monsanto leaves me very uncomfortable.
    I made a quick little diagram to make my point. http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7168/6765244343_e88f869cfc_b.jpg
    If anyone is interested, please feel free to re-use the image.
    I would encourage anyone concerned about the partnership to speak up on twitter and facebook, don’t let your voice go unheard.

    • Sort-of an aside, but I find it fascinating that they all use the same green in their logos. That’s neither here nor there,but still interesting. That green was certainly popular in the gardening industry through a particular era.

  8. Short story: I posted my NWF sign a few years ago. This encouraged my neighbor ro rip out his grass & install a garden (Good?) No, they have done nothing but spray Round Up Ready to kill weeds & Spray Miracle Grow on roses.

    Being down wind of the chems has done serious destruction to my habitat. I spoke to the neighbor & told him that NWF does not support Chems…….

    Now I have no ground to stand on & I am p!ssed

    • I wish I had written it down, but one of the things the CEO said yesterday that stood out to me was something to the effect of aligning with Scotts to help keep people interested in maintaining their lawns and gardens. Somehow this was seen to be an environmental positive. I’m sorry that is only paraphrased from my memory; however, the reaction I had at the time was that if people are using Scotts’ products to maintain their lawns then it is actually better that they be disinterested in maintenance and their properties allowed to go fallow.

  9. This is pretty ridiculous. Guess who won’t be getting a donation from me this year?

    On a side note, I try to stay away from anything having to do with Monsato but I can’t find another maker of organic garden soil other than Scotts around my area (I’m in Southern CT). Anyone have any suggestions? I’d be open to ordering online as well.

    • Are you looking for potting soil or an amender? Good soil tends to be very regional and I know this is a problem for a lot of people. In many places the Scotts brands are the only ones on the shelves.

    • RJ, I’m not sure where in Southern CT you are, but Natureworks in Northford is great. If they don’t have exactly what you’re looking for, I’m sure they’d be able to point you toward someone who does. If you get desperate, Adams Fairacre Farms garden centers in the Hudson Valley (just a jaunt down 84!) will have what you need.

    • Coast of Maine is my organic brand of choice. Their website ought to give you a list of local retailers, but I suspect Natureworks would have it. It’s widely available in central Connecticut.

    • ok, I feel like I’ve been posting this everywhere *but* you gotta compost. Or go to Freecycle – I’ve seen people offer redwigglers & worm composters [FREE].

      There’s also Craigs list – it’s shocking what you can find if you just look or are open to ideas.

      Save your veggi scraps & feed your worms :)
      Best organic soil ever & it’s FREE

    • McEnroe is near me (I live in Dutchess County, too), and while I know their farm products are stellar, I didn’t know they did retail sales. Thanks for the tip!

  10. This is my last post or I’m not going to get anything done:

    Lawn & Garden does not equal a Habitat:
    *Lawns are wastelands for wildlife.
    *Gardens are ok but they must have the basic elements: Food Water & Shelter.
    Roses/Ornamentals do not offer food or shelter. Plus they need a great deal of Chems which in turn kill soil organisms (worms, bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi) & pollute water.

    Always remember: A teaspoon of productive soil contains between 100 million and 1 billion microscopic organisms

    • I agree, except about the roses and ornamentals point. Roses do offer food. “Ornamentals” is an open-ended term. Many plants considered ornamentals are also useful in some way.

      I have grown plenty of both roses and ornamentals with nary a spray or chemical in sight.

  11. This isn’t the first time the NWF has done something that seems to be counter to their mission. In 1986 they sold a piece of property that had been donated, Claude Moore Farm in Loudoun County in northern Virginia, to a large developer. The spin was that they could use the money to purchase and preserve land in more important areas. There was a huge amount of outrage and Dr. Moore sued. Eventually the county took over the property and preserved the historic areas and some of the natural areas.

    There seems to a pattern here.

  12. I’m thankful for all the garden bloggers who are putting this info out here. Everyone should know. It makes me sick. I posted something on their facebook page and habitat certification page. I hope everyone who is outraged does so too. Thanks for spreading the word. Word.

  13. I didn’t see any re-arranging when I clicked on the link to the Facebook. I saw the comments up-front and center there….and lots of them too. Who knows? Maybe the tantalizing prospect of $$$$ that’s part of life in Washington made its way to NWF hq in Reston, VA as well.

    • The page I linked to is what you see once you figure out how to get inside. If you go to their page you are met with this splash page http://www.facebook.com/NationalWildlife?ref=ts

      If you click on that page it takes you directly to their website. If you’re not adept with Facebook, it takes some doing to figure out how to get to the wall to comment. They made this change yesterday afternoon.

  14. I’ll decline to comment on the particulars of NWF’s partnership (and no, I do not work for them), but I can share my experience in the nonprofit world in an effort to play devil’s advocate.

    Membership fees alone don’t stretch very far, so foundation grants are what allow most nonprofits to do their program work. Most foundations have seen significant losses in their investment portfolios over the last few years, leading to huge funding cuts for big & small nonprofits. It’s led to a lot of programs being cut and left a lot of organizations completely paralyzed and scrambling for alternative sources of funding. Corporate partnerships are one way to keep a project moving forward, and there are strict regulations on how these partnerships operate so that an organization can maintain it’s nonprofit status.

    This is not exactly a new concept. Take public radio underwriting. Careful wordsmithing gets a mention of a Big Bad Corporation’s name on the air without it being considered advertising. That station will indicate that a portion of the funding was provided by Big Bad Corporation; however, should Big Bad Corporation get itself into a PR pickle, they have no expectation whatsoever that the station will whitewash the message or neglect to report it. In the case of a nonprofit that advocates for policy changes, it’s entirely plausible that an organization could take a check from a Big Bad Corporation to work on one project while simultaneously advocating for policy changes that would undermine the profits of that very same corporation.

    Again, I am not saying NWF was right or wrong in their choice to partner with Scott; but it is an alternative way of looking at it.

    • I’m a nonprofit accountant and you’re right that a lot of nonprofits take corporate money.

      But personally, I’m of the belief that GOOD nonprofits don’t take any corporate money, specifically to avoid the appearance of impropriety. When you’re a nonprofit, taking corporate money is a slippery slope; when those of us who used to give to the NWF stop because of this “partnership”, how are they going to bridge the gap? Probably more corporate money. And this time, they’ll be more desperate. When Scott says, “This is what we want or you can’t have the money,” what choice will the NWF have left?

    • Thanks for bringing this up. I would have maintained a level of respect for their decision if they had used an explanation like this. Everyone is hurting and that includes non-profits. No doubt about it. But instead it has been spin, spin, spin.

  15. I am so disappointed in the NWF. I do not see how I can use Scott’s products and have a Wildlife Garden. It seems that the NWF needs to separate itself into a partner with Scott and separately as an advocate for wildlife. Gardeners who use Scott’s products are a different ‘marketing’ segment from those who want to create a Wildlife Garden.

  16. NWF blocked me from making comments on their FB page. I guess I can no longer make them feel uncomfortable

  17. Once today’s news about the toxic birdseed came out, I just… *Sigh* For real? For serious? Scott’s: Let’s save all the wild birds! Especially the ones carrying around toxins from eating our bird seed!

  18. I believe that non-profits, regardless of their mission become victims of their success. Once they reach a certain size, their focus moves to fundraising in order to sustain the growing administrative side of the organization. Like Gwen mentioned above, membership and individual donations are rarely sufficient to support large structures. I do believe that corporate partnerships are entered into with the best of intentions but over time maintaining those partnerships become key to maintaining the organization itself.

  19. Wonderful Post: There is no good that could come of this relationship it’s all corporate greed and at the risk of our health and that of our wildlife. Scotts need to alien themselves with wildlife organizations a few years back was only to protect and shield themselves from the law suites from selling Toxic Bird Seed among others It’s all Dirty Business

    I hope there is pressure put on others that are founding NWF so that they will pull financial support as well!

  20. Honestly, I’m biased where this comes in. My mother works for Scotts, and Scotts, for all its flaws, has treated my mother extremely well. They’ve recently been trying to branch out and include more organic, non-chemical based options to their repertoire,and while I get that that doesn’t absolve them of much, I just have some personal loyalty to Scotts and wanted to point out that they’re not all evil. Just mostly.

    • Peyton,

      I’m glad you commented. I’ve been VERY critical of this deal between the NWF & Scotts, and think it is a horrible idea. And even though the rhetoric online can sometimes get hot, I think it is worth remembering that most of the people working for Scotts and for the NWF are fundamentally decent people.

      I think there is definitely a need to encourage companies like Scotts to clean up their product lines, and sometimes that encouragement needs to be forceful. I think the NWF’s CEO is using some seriously flawed logic in defending this partnership, though, and that the NWF and Scotts should part company.

    • When we’re talking about a mega-corporation, I think it’s important to make a separation between the individuals who work at various levels in the company (we’re talking about a lot of people here) and the actions of the corporation at large and those who make decisions at the top and speak on its behalf.

      Attacking the actions of a mega-corporation worth billions of dollars that produces chemical toxins, is not attacking those people, and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for withholding valid criticism.

    • Yes, I had noticed that Scotts is a sponsor of various National Gardening Association endeavours as well as many other garden industry orgs and businesses. This is why I pointed to Margaret’s insightful comment about the lack of financial support for garden related endeavours in North American and the effect it is having on the industry.

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