Greenpeace Gone Wild.

Since its inception in 1971, Greenpeace has enjoyed an almost unassailable reputation as an environmental crusader that answers to no one but the many individual green-tinted donors who support it. According to the organization’s website:

Greenpeace is an independent campaigning organization. We do not accept money from government or corporations. That’s why our financial supporters are our lifeblood.

In the United States, at least, this dependence upon individual donors has resulted in the employment of thousands of individual door-to-door canvassers, as well as seemingly endless direct mail campaigns that have become familiar to almost any American who somehow managed to end up on an environmental organization’s mailing list. In fact, according to Greenpeace’s 2006 financial report (see page 26 for the balance sheet), 25% of the organization’s 2005 income was devoted to fundraising expenses. It is no exaggeration to state that – in addition to being a professional environmental organization – Greenpeace is also a highly professional fundraising organization.

One of the ways that Greenpeace (and, to be fair, many other non-profit organizations) likes to raise money is to connect an appeal for donations to a specific news item and/or campaign by the organization’s staff. Ideally, such an approach cultivates a prospective donor’s emotional response without taking advantage of it. Of course, whenever news is crafted to appeal to emotions – much less, empty wallets – there is opportunity for abuse.

Which brings me to “Toxic Tea Party,” a news article listed under the “International News” section of Greenpeace’s international homepage. Dated July 23, 2007, and reported from Guiyu, China, “Toxic Tea Party” purports to describe the “uncontrolled environmental disaster” caused by the thriving trade in imported e-scrap in southern Guangdong Province. The story opens with a striking description of a tea party where a man named “Boss Guo” makes two cups of tea, one with bottled water, and one with local water likely contaminated by chemicals released during the processing of e-scrap. Next to this opening paragraph is a photo showing the results: the bottled water produces normal-looking tea; the supposedly contaminated water produces black tea. Below, a screen capture of the first paragraph, the dateline, and the photo:

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The photo in question was taken by Natalie Behring, and an enlarged version that credits the image to her can be found by clicking the story here. At the bottom of the enlargement page, the photo is clearly dated March 8, 2005. A screen capture of the (contradictory) dateline:

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Another Behring image from what appears to be the same shoot, can be found on flickr, and is dated March 9, 2005.

The “Toxic Tea Party” story includes several additional photos from Behring, most of which are also found on her personal site, and her flickr site, and all of which appear to have been taken either March 8 or 9, 2005.

In other words – the Toxic Tea Party that Greenpeace implies took place recently (as implied by the July 23, 2007 dateline) actually took place twenty-six months ago.

[full disclosure: I had a brief email correspondence with Behring in November 2005 about the dates of these photos – which is why I remembered them so clearly when I came across the Greenpeace story. I should note, too, that I am not suggesting any wrongdoing by Behring in this matter. Greenpeace has rights to the images, and can mostly use them as the organization sees fit. Behring, meanwhile, is one of the very best photographers working in Asia today.]

Now, if this were just a matter of Greenpeace using old photos to support a new piece of reporting, I probably wouldn’t bother posting about it. But the fact is that Guiyu, as a waste dump for imported e-scrap has changed considerably since Natalie Behring took those photos with a Greenpeace fixer in 2005. In fact, the overall trade in imported scrap e-waste has been in serious decline over the last two years, primarily due to a crackdown coordinated between Chinese environmental, customs, tax, and quality supervision authorities. What Greenpeace doesn’t know – or prefers that others don’t know – is that during the last two years, several of China’s most notorious e-waste processing zones – including Guiyu – have seen real improvements in their environmental conditions. More significant, where those sites still exist, they are mostly filled with domestically generated e-scrap – NOT imported material. To be sure, much needs to improve in Guiyu – but it is much better than it was twenty-six months ago, when Greenpeace’s Toxic Tea Party took place.

At reputable newspapers, magazines, and websites, the use of two-year old photos to support a (purportedly) new news item wouldn’t even be considered. It’s dishonest, misleading, professionally unethical, and grounds for dismissal from pretty much any newsroom in the world. And newspapers aren’t trying to raise money from unsuspecting donors – unlike Greenpeace. Indeed, the end of “Toxic Tea Party” inlcudes a link that leads directly to a page where a prospective donor can begin the process of giving money to Greenpeace. In other words, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Greenpeace is manipulating its donors with false, shaded, and outdated information. Finally, for those who argue that Toxic Tea Party is not intended as a news item, I respectfully point out that it is preceded on the site’s International News section by a very interesting and contemporary report on the radiation leak at Kashiwazaki nuclear plant in Japan. Under any reasonable definition of “international news” – is the Kashiwazaki equivalent to the backdated and misleading Toxic Tea Party story?

Some people expect better from Greenpeace. Some people don’t. But whatever side one takes, I think it is depressingly clear that Greenpeace’s Toxic Tea Party is misleading, unethical, and factually challenged – regardless of whether it is journalism, fundraising, or some kind of unholy alliance between both.

[Update 7/27 – I’ve long been an admirer of Jim Plunkett and the Basel Action Network [BAN]. A few years ago, when Jim was in Shanghai, I provided him with reams of documents on Chinese scrap metal imports, as well as a site – previously unknown to him – where e-scrap was being processed. With that in mind, I took interest in a recent BAN press release, “Research Identifies U.S. Electronic Waste as Likely Source of Toxic Jewelry Imports from China.” The release makes a tenuous connection between recent research showing that the raw materials for some toy jewelry manufactured in China are derived from toxic waste, and the US export of e-scrap to China. As I note above, the trade in e-scrap from the United States is a fact, but it is much curbed since Plunkett’s first visit to Taizhou several years ago. Today, the vast majority of e-waste in Taizhou and China, in general, is Chinese, the product of an expanding economy with an undeveloped waste management structure. This is an important distinction that BAN, Greenpeace, and the other laudable critics of the international trade in e-scrap need to understand, and soon.]

6 thoughts on “Greenpeace Gone Wild.

  1. Greenpeace devotes a large amount of resources towards fundraising. But at least this allows them to remain largely independent (and, we hope, unbiased), unlike other NGO’s which accept corporate funding (e.g. WWF).

    I’ll be the first to admit that Greenpeace has its shortcomings (I used to work for them), but I have serious doubts they would intentionally present “misleading, unethical, and factually challenged” information.

    I suspect part of the reason these “outdated” images are still in use is because e-waste is so poorly documented in China. I think it’s safe to assume that neither the government nor the e-waste mafia make it easy for people to prance into these sites and snap away.

    As a result, Greenpeace isn’t the only ones still using Natalie’s photos- a quick google search revealed at least one other publication:
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3807&page=0

    A recent article on the fate of the Guiyu workers:

    E-Waste Hazards: Chinese gear recyclers absorb toxic chemicals
    http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20070714/fob3.asp

  2. Derek –

    Thanks for your comments and the links.

    A couple of points in reply. First, e-waste in China is not as poorly documented as you may think. I’ve been covering this area for five years (for Scrap magazine, and Recycling International magazine – as well as some non-trade pubs), and I’ve had very little trouble accessing the players involved in it. In fact, just last year there was a very large European-organized forum in Shanghai on the topic, and among the attendees were importers, exporters, and gov’t officials – all of whom spoke very openly about the scale of the problem. However, among the several hundred attendees, there was not one – NOT ONE – from Greenpeace or any other environmental organization.

    This is a pity. If Greenpeace had attended, the organization would have learned about private-public partnerships that are directed at improving the Chinese e-scrap processors. Greenpeace would also have learned that the vast majority of e-scrap in Guiyu and other places in China is NOT imported. It is, instead, domestically generated. That is an important distinction.

    Of course, if Greenpeace is trying to raise money from the developed world, a narrative about the developed world dumping its waste on the developing world (the globalization equivalent of a “dog bites man” story) is far more effective and compelling than one concerning China’s rising middle class and its inability to handle its own waste.

    In either case, I stand by my original statement: Greenpeace’s “Toxic Tea Party” post is not “International News,” and to post it AS International News is misleading and unethical. Fact is, if the best that Greenpeace can offer its members is two-year old information on e-scrap in China, then Greenpeace would be best served by focusing on topics where it has something useful and contemporary to offer.

  3. I completely agree with Adam. Since I am writing a research paper for my undergraduate english course, this topic hsa beocome me research paper. I have found plenty of information where Greenpeacs has falsely accused Apple for being largely responsible for e-scrap dumping in ‘3rd world countries’.

    I am suprised by how Greenpeace fabricates information to simply ignite problems. They’re simply ignorant

  4. Your analysis is correct. The poor Chinese scrap people have become the “Willie Horton” of the Greenpeace campaign. My post attached shows how CBS 60 Minutes followed the trail of CRT monitors to a place with no CRT monitors in sight.

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