mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Greenwashers celebrate Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! Thirty-five years the green movement created the holiday,
environmentalists cite huge victories like passage of the Clean Air Act, the
Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. And corporations aren’t shy
about how much they’ve done to help. But have they really? Commentator Mark
Hertsgaard chimes in.

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(Mark Hertsgaard)
Like daffodils announcing that spring is here, America’s newspapers sprout
full-page ads every Earth Day extolling how wonderfully corporations are taking
care of the environment.

This year, General Motors is bragging about hydrogen cars. Exxon-Mobil, about
energy conservation.

Never mind that in the real world, GM and Exxon-Mobil have been two of the
biggest obstacles to tackling global warming.

Critics call such advertising “greenwashing.” By spending tiny sums
to publicize misleading claims, polluters can avoid changing the way they do
business.

This year, there’s a new greenwasher: Wal-Mart. America’s biggest company has
long faced criticism for paying workers next to nothing, driving local
mom-and-pops out of business, and encouraging urban sprawl.

Last week, in full-page ads and even a bona fide news story in the
New York Times, Wal-Mart announced it would spend $35 million over ten
years to buy 138,000 acres of environmentally valuable habitat. That’s
as much land, Wal-Mart officials proudly declared, as the company’s
stores, parking lots and supply centers will occupy ten years from now.

But green halos don’t come so cheaply. The environmental
threat Wal-Mart poses goes far beyond the land its own facilities
occupy, to the larger blight of suburban sprawl.

A Wal-Mart superstore is a magnet for gas stations, fast food and other
commercial outlets to pave over still more land nearby. That increases
traffic and produces more smog and global warming.

What’s more, Wal-Mart’s famously low prices rely largely on Third World
production. Shipping those goods the extra distance means even more
energy use and more pollution.

Companies that are sincere about environmental reform don’t have to
greenwash. Pressure from forest activists has led Office Depot and Staples to
sell and market much more recycled paper.

Those are the kind of companies that deserve kudos on Earth Day—not
greenwashers who are happy to talk the talk but not walk the walk.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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