Scotts and National Wildlife Federation: Toxic Partners?

For the past few days, the National Wildlife Federation – who describe themselves as working “to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future” – has been weathering a firestorm of criticism for their decision to partner with Scotts Miracle-Gro – who describe themselves as “the world’s largest marketer of branded consumer lawn and garden products.” This might seem like a natural fit, until you realize that a significant portion of those branded consumer lawn and garden products are toxic environmental pollutants.

The partnership is undoubtedly a good one for Scotts: it allows them to greenwash their business is a way that no other single deal could have done. Scotts’ consumer sales in the U.S. were down 7% in 2011 compared to 2010, due in part to poor weather and higher commodity costs, but also due in part to shifts in consumer demand. As a result, they plan on increasing their marketing expenditure in 2012 by up to $40 million and we can assume that at least some of that increase will be associated with their new partnership with the National Wildlife Federation. The NWF logo on bags of Scotts birdseed and organic fertilizer will undoubtedly help Scotts sell more product in this new environment of sustainability.

Kill Clover in the Lawn. That's the message from Scotts: "If you see little white flowers in your yard with bees active around them, chances are you have clover. Most lawns do. There are many kinds of this low–growing perennial weed that set up shop in yards across the country. The most common is white clover. Here's how you can control it."

But how about the NWF and – more importantly – wildlife? Is the Scotts Miracle-Gro partnership a fundamentally bad idea, or a good one? The NWF argues that they “saw a great opportunity in reaching past our usual audience to Scotts’ 30 million customers”, whereas some NWF supporters are accusing the non-profit of selling out to the proverbial devil.

The Scotts brand that is, more than any other, a lightning rod for criticism is RoundUp. RoundUp is a broad-spectrum herbicide owned by Monsanto (Scotts is the exclusive U.S. marketer) which is a double-whammy for Scotts: not only is RoundUp a dastardly poison on its own merits, but it also ties Scotts to Monsanto which is a global purveyor of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The folks at the NWF clearly anticipated some backlash from members against their partnership with Scott but underestimated the severity of the backlash that flows from this guilt-by-association with Monsanto. Associating the NWF brand with RoundUp is likely to be a toxic career move for National Wildlife Federation executives.

But I think there is a more fundamental problem with the partnership, which is that Scotts Miracle-Gro’s revenues depend almost entirely on selling consumers products to kill wildlife and destroy wildlife habitat.

Some products, such as insecticides and herbicides, require no complex calculation: their sole function is to kill wildlife.

Scott's view of an ideal environment: turf grass monoculture.

Other products, like lawn fertilizers, depend on selling Americans on the concept of great lawns. While it might appear that converting those fertilizers from petroleum-based synthetic chemicals to organic ones is a step in the right direction (and, technically, I suppose it is) the truth is lawns are anathema to wildlife. Lawns are a wasteland when it comes to wildlife, even organically maintained lawns. And, in the biggest irony of this story, no one knows that better than NWF supporters who have converted their own lawns to Certified Wildlife Habitats.

Even Scotts’ much-touted lines of designer bird seed are not so much a component of wildlife habitat as a substitute for it. If Americans stopped supporting their vast under-utilized lawns and planted native habitat gardens instead, we wouldn’t need vitamin-supplemented bird seed for our songbirds. In the bird food market, Scotts Miracle-Gro is playing the role of an arsonist, who burns down my house and then kindly offers to rent me a tent. NWF members can see through the charade, apparently, but the NWF itself cannot.

Executives at the National Wildlife Federation also seem to think they can “work from within” Scotts to make their products more environmentally sound. I doubt it, and not only because the NWF has been down this road before (when the NWF partnered with BP/Amoco).  Scotts already knows that it makes a lot more revenue from 1,000 square feet of lawn than it can ever make off of 1,000 square feet of Certified Wildlife Habitat. And Scotts should get no credit for reducing phosphorous in their fertilizers, or for reducing the amount of peat in their potting mix, when those reductions are government mandates that Scotts fought to begin with.

Finally, I’ll come back to RoundUp. Anyone who thinks that Scotts is preparing to make a significant shift towards a wildlife-friendly business model should read their 2011 annual report. The section on “Risk Factors” is especially helpful for framing the things that Scotts sees as dangers to their profits (e.g. “Compliance with environmental and other public health regulations”). And the details of their marketing agreement with Monsanto is here:

If Monsanto were to terminate the Marketing Agreement for consumer Roundup® products, we would lose a substantial source of future earnings and overhead expense absorption.

If we were to commit a serious default under the Marketing Agreement with Monsanto for consumer Roundup® products, Monsanto may have the right to terminate the Marketing Agreement. If Monsanto were to terminate the Marketing Agreement for cause, we would not be entitled to any termination fee. Monsanto may also be able to terminate the Marketing Agreement within a given region, including North America, without paying us a termination fee if unit volume sales to consumers in that region decline: (i) over a cumulative three fiscal-year period; or (ii) by more than 5% for each of two consecutive years. If the Marketing Agreement was terminated for any reason, we would also lose all, or a substantial portion, of the significant source of earnings and overhead expense absorption the Marketing Agreement provides.

Read more about NWF partnership with Scotts:

© 2012, Vincent Vizachero. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    This is important information Vincent. Excellent presentation of the issues, and if I may, I’m going to use the “burn down your house and offer to rent you a tent” metaphor. Also I wasn’t aware of the Monsanto relationship. Thanks.

    Hal Mann recently posted..Goodbye Norway Maple

  2. Michele Dittman says

    I left my comments for NWF yesterday – thanks for providing the link. This is so sad; there are SO many people who will happily buy chemicals with the NWF logo on the label and feel they are doing something for the environment even though, deep down, they know better. We can be such sheep… I hope NWF isn’t doing this thinking the population is smarter than the chemical people and that this action won’t make a difference.

  3. says

    Vincent, this is a great post. I think it’s important to look at the partnership from a business standpoint and try to figure out what’s in it for NWF besides the $$. As Carole Sevilla Brown points out in her interview with David, if they just needed money, there are loads of other respectable companies that would have happily partnered with NWF. The partnership is obviously a win for Scotts but I still can’t wrap my head around it from the NWF perspective.
    Debbie recently posted..National Wildlife Federation & Scotts Miracle-Gro: WWRRD

  4. says

    If Scotts’ ties to Monsanto were limited to Roundup it would be bad enough.

    according to these excerpts from 1998 also saw Scotts branch out into GM technology, through the acquisition of 80% of Sanford Scientific Inc, “allowing researchers to create desirable varieties of plants with value-added traits far beyond the capabilities of conventional plant breeding techniques”.[7] Scotts also entered into a collaboration with the Monsanto company to “bring the benefits of biotechnology to the multi-billion dollar turfgrass and ornamental plants business.[8] Under the agreement, Scotts and Monsanto agreed to share technologies, including Monsanto’s extensive genetic library of plant traits and Scotts’ proprietary gene gun technology to produce ‘improved’ transgenic turfgrass and ornamental plants. Other acquisitions in 1998 included the US company EarthGro Inc. and the continental lawn and garden products company ASEF.

    Scotts relationship with Monsanto became even cosier in 1999, when Scotts completed agreements with the company for exclusive US, Canada, UK, France, Germany and Austria agency and marketing rights to its consumer Roundup herbicide products. Scotts also purchased the remainder of Monsanto’s lawn and garden business, which included the pesticide brand Ortho.

    In 2002, the company increased its investment in GM technology, by signing a research and commercialisation agreement with New Zealand’s Crop & Food Research that could lay the groundwork for the production of flowering ornamental plants ‘enhanced’ by biotechnology. The company announced that the research will initially focus on ‘improved’ geraniums, although these are unlikely to be available commercially for several years.[11]

    Did you know Scotts has already developed GMO turf grass seed? It’s not on the market (yet . . .)
    Linda recently posted..Two Peas in a Pod

  5. says

    Thanks for a very articulate post. I like how you use Scotts own words to expose the company for what it is.
    We have been giving NWF a lot of well deserved hell. But the real enemy is Scotts. I would like to know what they have to say about this partnership. What promises have they made? Are they becoming environmentally friendly? Are they phasing out all their toxic products? Of course not! But, still I would like to hear one of them explaining their point of view on this matter.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Bees and vitamins

  6. Glenda Turck says

    We have a Natural Habitat designation from NWF and Texas Parks and Wildlife. We don’t use Scott’s products except occasionlly their bird seed which we use to view the birds who come to our yard. Since we live across the road from a wildlife preserve maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers extra seed, especially in winter, is our only way to slow the birds down. But We don’t use chemicals on our property and never will. NWF has bitten hugely from that tempting apple of Scott customers. Now they won’t think twice about using that product while thinking they are helping the environment.

  7. Autumn says

    “Scotts should get no credit for reducing phosphorous in their fertilizers, or for reducing the amount of peat in their potting mix, when those reductions are government mandates that Scotts fought to begin with.” — Exactly my thoughts when I watched Schweiger spew this out during his conference yesterday afternoon…disappointment in him and NWF barely begins to describe my feelings.

  8. says

    Fabulous and eloquently written post, Vincent. You have covered the issues in a clearly understandable way. Thanks for putting everything together so we can point people to one place to really learn what is going on.

    To the bird seed users: please read the ingredient panels on the Scott’s seed (copy available at their website) and decide if the chemicals contained in it really will “save the songbirds”.
    Loret recently posted..Wildlife Charity Contributions -–Act Local

  9. says

    Wow. Talk about getting in bed with the devil. Roundup and NWF = oxymoron. What were they thinking? Instead of putting a patent endorsement (NWF logo) on Scotts’ products, if the NWF really wants to work from within, make Scotts earn it! Give them standards with which they must comply, and compliance to be checked and verified every six months by an independent third party the rest of us can trust. Then hold them to it.

    Partner with Scotts in developing a shift from lawns to wildlife habitat and edible landscapes. Partner with Scotts to develop a new business plan and model that phases out wasteful lawns and phases in gardens that please the senses and enhance our human interaction with Nature while protecting the planet and all her creatures.
    Kathryn Grace recently posted..One simple meditation step you can use every day

  10. says

    It’s a truism in organizational sociology that, when push comes to shove, organizations will almost always prioritize organizational survival over their professed goals. This seems to be exactly what NWF has done.
    Jean/Jean’s Garden recently posted..Versatility


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