A recent deal between the Sierra Club and The Clorox Company has raised some important questions about the ethics and strategic wisdom of environmental groups endorsing a company’s products in exchange for payment from the company. As reported in the Los Angeles Times and Forbes (both articles are by John Flesher of the A.P.), the Sierra Club has endorsed a new line of products from The Clorox Company called Green Works™ in exchange for a share of the profits (an amount that the Sierra Club will not disclose). I’m quoted in the story (“Green is in…. This is a very good time to be in the environmental protection business”), but didn’t comment on either the environmental pros and cons of this new product line or the appropriateness of Sierra Club’s endorsement (see the Sierra Club’s webpage on the Green Works deal and the Clorox webpage on the Green Works product line for their side of the story). For better or for worse, environmental groups have been partnering with manufacturers and supporting various product lines for decades, and the Green Works products may be worthy of the Sierra Club’s endorsement to build awareness and better educate consumers.
The Green Works deal is unusual and concerning, however, because the Sierra Club is getting paid for it. This raises at least two significant long-term problems. First, the Sierra Club might become dependent on this funding source and make programmatic and strategic decisions based on its need for the Clorox funding. This leads to the second and more troubling problem. Environmental groups’ most important assets are their reputation and trustworthiness. The effectiveness of the environmental movement is dependent on keeping the trust of citizens in the integrity of environmental groups. We don’t expect corporations to do what’s best for the environment, but we do expect environmental groups to put environmental protection above all other interests, including funding. Even if the Sierra Club will never compromise its values and judgment because of the Clorox deal, it certainly creates the appearance of a conflict, and this appearance can undermine the public’s confidence in environmental groups. As stated by a New York chapter of the Sierra Club in a resolution regarding the Clorox deal, “endorsing a specific commercial product in exchange for a payment severely diminishes our conservation integrity and credibility.” The environmental movement needs every bit of its hard-earned credibility to meet the policy challenges of climate change, water protection, and environmental justice. Let’s not jeopardize our collective reputation for a few easy bucks.