Corporate Greenwash at EU Environment Meet Challenged
BRUSSELS - Coca-Cola, recently indicted for causing serious damage
to water and soil in India, might seem like an odd champion of environmental
Yet the global beverages giant was given a platform to present itself
as ecologically progressive by one of the European Union's (EU) most
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
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
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
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
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 35,000 euro (43,000 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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