Timberlands Greenwashing: Building Bridges and Splitting Greens

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This article was first published as "Building Bridges and Splitting Greens", PR Watch, volume 7, number 1, First Quarter 2000. The original article was authored by Nicky Hager and Bob Burton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Divide and conquer

The biggest problem of Timberlands, a government-owned logging company, was that it was opposed by New Zealand's largest environment groups and supported by only one very small group. It needed to muddy the waters sufficiently to make the public think that environment groups disagreed among themselves about its rainforest logging proposals.

Shandwick's PR papers devoted considerable attention strategies for "bridge building" with "Environmental Lobby Groups." The company was not about to back away from its plan to log the rainforests. What it wanted was to entice environment groups to support its plans, targeting especially those individuals who could be cultivated and would bring their organization with them: "Identify key opposition groups and the individuals within them who are likely to be more supportive/less opposed to Timberlands."

It set out to court environmentalists from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and a "third wave" environmentalist, Guy Salmon of the Maruia Society. Timberlands claimed repeatedly that these were "mainstream" groups although over 95% of New Zealand's environmental membership was in groups opposing Timberlands' logging, compared to less than 2% in the Maruia Society.

Timberlands thought the place to start was to "develop points of agreement or commonality with these groups, ideally leading to joint agreements/statements, etc." The plan was to "establish or develop existing relations with individual group members on common or non-contentious areas [emphasis in original] eg. scientific research on forest wildlife." From these initial contacts, Timberlands planned to move on to "share research information and involve them in developing scenarios for management in the wild."

To cement the courtship, Timberlands considered offering "appropriate support" for "some of their projects." In return, the company would "Obtain permission to use photos and personal quotes from a number of supporters and experts, in particular, bird experts, ecologists etc."

The most delicate overtures involved the WWF, with which Timberlands initiated cooperation regarding some non-contentious surveying for the South Island kokako, a bird in the Timberlands-controlled Maruia beech forest that was thought to be extinct. "WWF has funded further kokako research," noted the Timberlands papers, which weighed the opportunity "to discuss with WWF a joint press release."

Although Timberlands staff were keen to publicly associate with the WWF, they worried that pressing too hard could undermine longer-term plans. "Discussion of merits of gaining exposure for Timberlands at expense of jeopardizing its relationship with WWF," they noted. They took comfort, however, in the attitude of WWF conservation officer Simon Towle. The teleconference minutes noted that "Towle has little problem in being quoted in a joint press release with Timberlands."

The kokako project was unrelated to Timberlands' logging activities on the West Coast, an issue on which the WWF had no policy or involvement. However, Timberlands invited WWF staff on a PR trip to the West Coast and was delighted with the results. The visitors, they bragged, "described their impressions of our management as for them 'like children looking through a toy shop window.' "

Timberlands' PR strategy stated that it was "important to acknowledge the role different staff members and personalities can play in contacting and developing relationships with various groups." In the case of Simon Towle, Kit Richards of Timberlands took on the task of building the relationship through regular telephone and mail contact. The relationship developed so well that Richards felt confident enough to send the WWF an early copy of its controversial logging plans. It also gave the then-still-secret report to the Maruia Society.

In 1997, Timberlands scored its first public success. Although the WWF had no policy on or involvement in the West Coast forest issue, Towle agreed to appear on a five-minute Timberlands promotional video, titled Sustaining Our Natural Beech Forests, which was designed to sell the ecological virtues of its beech logging scheme. Towle's interview did not mention the South Island kokako or bird research or even ecology. Instead, he was quoted saying that the shift to "treating beech as a high quality, high value product is a very, very positive move." For Timberlands, having the words "World Wide Fund for Nature" on the screen introducing Towle was likely to have been at least as important as anything he said.

By far Timberlands' greatest public relations asset, though, was Maruia Society executive director Guy Salmon. Previously called the Native Forest Action Council (NFAC), the Maruia Society was New Zealand's most active environmental organization during the period from 1975 to 1985. Throughout this period, Salmon's conservativism led to conflicts with many of the group's active members. By the late 1980s, other environmental groups had become dominant, and shrinking membership forced the Maruia Society to close many of its branches.

In the 1990s, Maruia's principal activity consisted of lobbying and writing by Salmon, who traveled to the United States in 1989 and returned enthusiastic about "third wave" environmentalism. This was the idea that, rather than opposing environmentally damaging activities, environmentalists needed to work closely with companies so that they would improve their development plans voluntarily. Instead of relying on environmental regulations developed by the state, "third wave" environmentalists argued that sustainability should be achieved by harnessing "market mechanisms."

Salmon put this theory into practice by habitually taking the side of Timberlands whenever the issue of West Coast native forest logging arose. Timberlands devoted a separate section of its 1994 PR strategy to Salmon and the Maruia Society, based on an aggressive "direct enviro approach" rather than the "bridge-building" approach designed for groups like the WWF. Timberlands realized that Salmon's belief in collaboration with industry could be used to attack the philosophy of other environmentalists.

"When appropriate," the strategy went, "initiate direct contact for discussion on the overall environmental debate, its direction and its future (Maruia). Audience: Guy Salmon and similar thinkers." They were the "future," in Timberland's eyes, because environment groups that opposed rainforest logging were outmoded. The only real environmental issues worth discussing concerned not whether, but how to proceed with the logging. Ironically, the Maruia Society had been named after the Maruia Valley which, thanks to its outstanding beech forests, was where Timberlands planned to begin its beech logging scheme.

By 1997, however, the "outmoded" environmental campaign to protect the forests grew to a point where they threatened the company's beech logging plans. In September 1998, the new logging plans were leaked to environmental groups, released to journalists and publicly condemned by opposition party leaders. Guy Salmon immediately approached Simon Towle of the WWF and suggested they issue a joint news release, which was sent out the same evening.

The release stated that Timberlands' proposals for sustainable "harvesting" of beech forests should be given "serious and open-minded consideration." Borrowing industry phraseology, it characterized the plans as "a very sincere and impressive effort to achieve very low impact sustainable management of the forest. . . . The two groups also noted that Timberlands had made a significant contribution to scientific research into the conservation of endangered species such as kokako and kiwi, and into control of major pests such as stoats."

Predictably, the news release was reported as an indicator of divisions within the environment movement. "Environment groups are split over proposals to log native beech forests on the West Coast," reported one newspaper.

If anything, Timberlands had been too successful in its efforts to turn Towle into a corporate mouthpiece. The WWF for which he worked had no policy on the beech logging plans, and Towle had made his statement without authority or checking it with his organization. His statement drew a public rebuke from the WWF chairperson, Dame Cath Tizard, who issued a press statement saying that it was "regrettable that WWF-NZ's position on the Timberlands Beech Forest Proposal has been misrepresented."

The damage was done, however, and Timberlands had what it needed: the impression of support from the environmental movement. Notwithstanding WWF's official protest, Tony Ryall, the government minister in charge of Timberlands, used the Salmon-Towle news release for months thereafter as his standard response to anyone who wrote him concerning West Coast logging. In the eyes of the government, it was proof that reasonable environmentalists backed the logging.

Salmon even offered Timberlands political advice on whom to lobby. The minutes of one weekly PR conferences recorded Guy Salmon advising Timberlands to lobby Deborah Morris, the Associate Minister for the Environment: "Kit Richards [Timberlands strategic planning manager] spoke with Guy Salmon at Taupo. GS believes D Morris is still an important MP target."

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