Blackwashing: do NGO tactics risk long term public trust?

Blackwashing: do NGO tactics risk long term public trust?

Ecologist: Tom Levitt: 1st January, 2010

Instead of making exaggerated claims about species becoming extinct, NGOs could make progress on issues like deforestation by collaborating more closely with companies, claims a new report.

The continued expansion of palm oil plantations means orangutans are just a few years from extinction, if you accept the predictions of various environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth.

One group, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), has gone further in claiming, ‘orangutans are predicted to become extinct as early as 2011.’

Neither claim is likely to be true and may in fact be evidence of ‘blackwashing’, a term used to describe environmental scaremongering and propaganda.

A report published recently in the journal of tropical biology and conservation analysed the publicity tactics used by both NGOs and palm oil companies on the issue of tropical deforestation.

It is openly critical of groups, including FOE and RAN, for making, ‘exaggerated claims in their campaigns…misleading and unverified accusations of avoidable environmental degradation by corporations.’

It says there are 50,000 orangutans in 54 wild populations scattered across Sumatra and Borneo. And that at least 38 of those populations exceed 250 individuals, the level needed to maintain a viable breeding population.

No extinction in 2011

Other organisations like the Sumatran Orangutan Society refuse to use extinction dates because of their unreliability. ‘We prefer to say that they are likely to be the first great ape species to become extinct unless we stop deforestation,’ says spokesperson Helen Buckland.

Report co-author Rhett Butler explains further:  ‘We aren’t saying the deforestation isn’t occuring (it certainly is) but that NGOs need to be careful about getting the facts right. For example, claiming that orang-utans are going to be extinct by 2011 is not accurate.’

RAN admitted that its figure was inaccurate. Spokesperson Margaret Swink said it had been taken from a Guardian news report that in turn got it from a British orangutan association.

‘Everyone wants to take the fact that is the most convincing or grabs people’s attention the quickest. We try and be as accurate as possible but we don’t always succeed.

‘We are a campaigning organisation so research is not our main thrust,’ she says.

Unfair comparison

Swink says she hopes people realise that the action they and other NGOs take are designed to force corporations to be more responsible and acknowledge the impact their decisions have on wild orangutan populations.

‘This is the critical point rather than the exact extinct date of 2011, 2015 or 2020,’ she says.

A point reiterated by Friends of the Earth (FOE), who said it was ‘completely unfair’ to compare the tactics of corporations and NGOs.

‘On the one hand FOE is concerned about human rights and environmental protection. On the other hand, you have PR projects funded by industries that destroy the environment and commit human rights abuses,’ says head of economics Ed Matthews.

Matthews said species like the orangutan were emblematic of the wider destruction of rainforest in Indonesia. ‘To get corporations to act, to galvanise political parties, we have to focus on emblematic cases.

‘But we would never have used the figures we used if we had not thought it was credible,’ he says.

Short-term tactics

The report says such an approach could actually be ‘counterproductive’ to safeguarding against deforestation.

In the short term, says the report, blackwashing can ‘make headlines, raise the profile of environmental debates and increase donations’. But in the longer term, blackwashing exposed for what it really is could, ‘diminish the trust invested in environmental groups and more generally undermine public support for conservation.’

Co-author Rhett Butler says NGOs rushing to defend their use of facts are missing a more important point, namely the unprecedented power environmental groups have to change corporate behaviour, if they stick to accurate facts.

‘Given current trends, it seems likely that in the future the bulk of environmental degradation (especially deforestation) will be driven by industrial enterprises rather than subsistence users. Thus since corporate entities are the actors, engagement is important.’

NGO power

Butler points to the success of a recent Greenpeace campaign that pressurised the largest soy crushes in the Amazon to implement a moratorium on soy processing, pending the development of a tracking mechanism to ensure their crop was coming from environmentally-responsible producers.

He said while the rise of industrial-scale deforestation was ‘alarming’, it allowed NGOs to focus their attention on a ‘vastly smaller number of resource-exploiting corporations’.

‘Many of these are either multinational firms or domestic companies seeking access to international markets which compels them to exhibit some sensitivity to the growing environmental concerns of global consumers and shareholders,’ says Butler in a previous report he co-authored, ‘New Strategies for conserving tropical forests’.


Helen Buckland, of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, says the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), working on mutually acceptable criteria for palm oil production, was a case in point. RAN and Greenpeace have been among those critical of RSPO and NGOs taking part for becoming part of corporate greenwashing apparatus.

 ‘We have to be realistic,’ says Buckland. ‘Oil plantations are not going to go away. Deforestation will continue, we cannot save every tree. But there are millions of acres of land available in Indonesia that is not of conservation value,’ she says.

Friends of the Earth said they also took a deliberate decision to harness corporate support for ethical palm oil rather than call for a boycott. Ed Matthews said while RSPO had not developed as they had hoped they had succeeded in getting all major UK supermarkets to join up.

While admitting RSPO on its own was never going to be enough, Buckland said activists calling for a ban on palm oil were getting their message across the loudest but ultimately confusing the public.

‘People might assume there will be an easy alternative to palm oil but that might be soya and then the problem is exported to the Amazon,’ she says.

How to collaborate with companies?

Buckland admits they have to continually assess their relationships with companies to make sure there is progress being made, ‘we do not want to let them use us as greenwash’.

But Butler and his co-authors say RSPO and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) pointed the way forward for NGOs.

‘Neither greenwashing nor blackwashing campaigns are constructive…instead they should be helping palm oil industry develop stronger sustainability criteria and raising consumer awareness and demand for certified sustainable palm oil.’


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