Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Gro-ing debate about National Wildlife Federation's new partnership

Full disclosure: I have written articles for Ranger Rick nature magazine for children, a product of the National Wildlife Federation. I have been lucky to work with editors there who are nothing short of saints. I am not anxious to sever that partnership without good cause. Neither am I going to defend a client if I feel their practices do not reflect my own philosophy.

Upon hearing the news that the NWF announced a new partnership with Scotts Miracle Gro, I decided to go straight to the source. I had not communicated with my editor there in some time, so this news gave me a great excuse to do so. Not surprisingly, she was almost as in the dark as those of us outside the organization, but she did track down the following in response to the overwhelming criticism (from NWF CEO Larry Schweiger):

”I appreciate the concern you and others have expressed about NWF’s partnership with Scotts. I’d like to share my perspective with you on how we came to this decision.

National Wildlife Federation has long believed that America works best when we work together. We fail when we divide. We have a 75-year history of collaborating with people and organizations from across the spectrum on the most important issues facing wildlife.

Much of our conservation work focuses on making changes on Capitol Hill, but more and more I believe we must all do what we can to change corporate and individual behavior when it’s incongruent with a healthy, sustainable world. We have carefully considered the pluses and minuses of working with ScottsMiracle Gro in an objective way, knowing that our friends in the organic gardening world have legitimate concerns about the company. I am sure the staff at Scotts had their own set of concerns about National Wildlife Federation.

I looked very carefully at not just where Scotts is at the moment, but more importantly where the company is going. While National Wildlife Federation is not endorsing any of the products that organic gardeners and others find objectionable, we will be encouraging Scotts to develop products that will lead to a more sustainable world.

I believe we can do more for wildlife by working to move corporations with a large environmental footprint in the right direction. Here are three important indicators of where Scotts is taking a new approach to lawn and garden products.


Lawns are a significant feature in the American landscape and what happens in our lawns doesn’t stay in our lawns. NASA has a great website that depicts the significance of lawns in and around aquatic ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay.

Chemical runoff from lawns, particularly phosphorus which is a limiting nutrient, has a major impact on a number of lakes and fresh water portions of estuaries. Excess phosphorus stimulates "dead zones” by stimulating algae blooms that cause oxygen depletion in lakes, reservoirs and tidal fresh estuaries.

National Wildlife Federation has been promoting efforts to regulate non-point pollution under the Clean Water Act for decades with little real progress. It is clear that to make progress in this cause we need to work with companies that can make better product formulation decisions that will have a positive impact on millions of lawns and gardens across America. By working with Scotts, we can give voice to the need to curtail the use of phosphorus in lawn and garden fertilizer. As a result of a recent court decision, Scotts will phase out phosphorus in all of its fertilizers at the end of 2012 (with the exception of its plant starter products). This will create a market shift, as Scotts is a dominate player in the residential lawn care world. National Wildlife Federation supported this decision and we will work with Scotts to continue to encourage further improvements in the company’s fertilizers to protect fish, wildlife and their habitats.


Millions of American gardeners buy Peat Moss to add organic matter to their gardens, not knowing that it has an enormous ecological consequence to sphagnum wetland ecosystems all across the boreal region of Canada where peat is mined. Peat mining also disrupts critically important carbon storage systems and destroys the biological and archeological records which are preserved in acidic bogs and other sphagnum wetlands.

With NWF’s full support, Scotts has undertaken a comprehensive effort to move away from the use of peat in its products and is replacing peat with recycled organic matter from much better sources. We will continue to encourage Scotts’ efforts in this important transition to save fragile ecosystems and to protect the earth’s best carbon sinks.


Scotts’ scientists recognize that carbon storage in our lawns can be an important component for recapturing carbon pollution. They are studying various lawn management strategies and seed mixes to optimize carbon storage in our lawns. As we know and understand more about how to optimize carbon storage and how to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from our lawns, NWF will attempt to communicate meaningful solutions that gardeners and other homeowners can adopt. More information on this work can be found here.”

I do not expect that you all have read every word above, let alone read anything here without a high degree of skepticism. I would not expect less from my blog readers. So, you ask, what is my impression?

Let me say that I think this partnership is at best premature. First, it is abundantly clear that NWF did not solicit any input from their membership before reaching their decision, and that is truly insulting to the supporters it had before now. Second, why not let Scotts actively demonstrate their professed commitment to a changing “philosophy” before entering into any monetary agreement with them?

Nevertheless, I am hard-pressed to simply dismiss the National Wildlife Federation as having “sold out” to corporate interests. One cannot overlook all the good this non-profit has done throughout its history. How many of you grew up on Ranger Rick or Your Big Backyard? Do we not look to NWF for unbiased news on environmental issues? Do we really think that is going to change with this partnership?

I am cautiously optimistic about this, and would not recommend that any of my readers hastily yank their membership in, and support of, the National Wildlife Federation. I will, however, be keeping an eye on the organization’s response to its critics, both internal and external. What happens in the next few weeks will go a long way to determining NWF’s continued leadership and legitimacy in environmental stewardship.

More on this issue: ”National Wildlife Federation & Scotts Miracle-Gro: WWRRD?”
”David Mijewski Defends National Wildlife Federation Partnership with Scotts Miracle Gro”


  1. Too soon to tell how this will play out. But I am still rather mystified as to how it came about in the first place?

  2. Having dealt in depth with the even more complicated palm oil issues and the debate over working together (some would say joining the bad guys) vs. avoiding/boycotting, I can see the CEO's points and it could be a good thing. Like you, though, I'll be watching the situation.

  3. I hope that all of you let NWF know how you feel. I also hope that NWF reconsiders, otherwise I am not renewing my membership.
    Now, we should take a look at all the universities that have been partnering with Scotts for years. What do we think about that?

  4. I've supported NWF for many years and when word of this decision reached me a few days ago I must admit to being dumbfounded at first. However knowing the history of NWF and all they have done for environmental issues I could not help but feel they had a good reason for doing what they are doing. This partnership could benefit NWF and the ecosystem in many ways, including substancial finacial support for the continued good of the environment. It could bring Scotts MiracleGro out of the dark ages and into a more ecologically beneficial future. I am going to think only the best until proven wrong and will continue to offer my support to an organization I have long believed in.