Ecological Double Agents

Sharon Beder

Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Ecological Double Agents', Australian Science, Vol. 19, no 1, February 1998, pp19-22.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

In her new book "Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism" Sharon Beder describes the way corporations and industry associations use front groups to put their views into the mouths of others who are portrayed as independent scientists or public interest advocates.

The weak agreement at Kyoto stands testiment to the sophisticated techniques that the fossil fuel lobby have used to undermine the credibility of greenhouse gas science and persuade the population that there is no urgent need to take tough action, despite the consensus of 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists that there is already "a discernible human influence on global climate."

One of the tactics that multnationals have employed is the use of front groups to oppose measures to prevent global warming, particularly in the US. The Information Council on the Environment, which is a coal industry front group, was formed to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)." It has a large advertising budget and in a media strategy obtained by Ozone Action, detailed its plan to target "older, less-educated males from larger households who were not typically active information seekers", and to use scientists as spokespeople as they are more credible with the public. [1]

The Global Climate Coalition, a coalition of 50 US trade associations and private companies representing oil, gas, coal, automobile and chemical interests, has spent millions of dollars in its campaign to persuade the public and governments that global warming is not a real threat. Its tactics have included the distribution of a video to hundreds of journalists which claims that increased levels of carbon dioxide will increase crop production and help to feed the hungry people of the world.[2] In the lead up to the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the Global Climate Coalition and other industry interests successfully lobbied the US government to avoid mandatory emissions controls. And the Coalition has been active in the lead up to Kyoto, trying to head off any agreement to reductions. The lobbying continues after Kyoto since the treaty needs to be approved by a two-thirds majority of Senate before it will be effective in the US.

The use of front groups enable corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern or scientific independence. These front groups lobby governments to legislate in the corporate interest; to oppose environmental regulations and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability. Front groups also campaign to change public opinion so that the markets for corporate goods are not threatened and the efforts of environmental groups are defused. Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the public relations firm Porter/Novelli, advises companies:

Put your words in someone else's mouth... There will be times when the position you advocate, no matter how well framed and supported, will not be accepted by the public simply because you are who you are. Any institution with a vested commercial interest in the outcome of an issue has a natural credibility barrier to overcome with the public, and often, with the media.[3]

The names of corporate front groups are carefully chosen to mask the real interests behind them but they can usually be identified by their funding sources, membership and who controls them. Some front groups are quite blatant, working out of the offices of public relations firms and having staff of those firms on their boards of directors. For example the Council for Solid Waste Solutions shares office space with the Society of the Plastic Industry, Inc and the Oregon Lands Coalition works out of the offices of the Association of Oregon Industries.[4]

Corporate front groups have flourished in the United States. Several large companies donate money to more than one front group. For example in 1991 Dow Chemical was contributing to ten front groups including the Alliance to Keep Americans Working, the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, the American Council on Science and Health, Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Council for Solid Waste Solutions. According to Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman, in their report on corporate front groups in America, oil companies Chevron and Exxon were each contributing to nine such groups. Other companies which donate to multiple groups include Mobil, Du Pont, Amoco, Ford, Philip Morris, Pfizer, Monsanto and Proctor and Gamble.[5]

Corporate front groups are less well documented outside of the United States although it is reasonable to assume that they operate wherever the multinational corporations who support them operate. In Australia the Forest Protection Society is one such group. Its major aims are to: "Provide a national grassroots voice for people associated with or supportive of Australia's forest-based industries." and "Help ensure government decision-making processes are aware of the benefits of forest industries." Its national director, Chris Althaus is a forestry graduate and founding staff member of the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) where he has been a member for nine years.

The Forest Protection Society was established in 1987 with the support of the Forest Industry Campaign Association whose executive officer claimed the funds were just to get it started but that it would be an independent community group. However ten years later the Society still admits to being industry funded and it is linked to NAFI's home page under "NAFI Members' Sites" along with various forestry companies. The Forest Protection Society is also listed as an 'Environmental Protection Organisation in the 1994 Directory of Australian Associations. It's fact sheets promote logging in rain-forests as "one of the best ways to ensure that the rain-forests are not destroyed."[6]

Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP) is another Australian front group which has been exposed. Its prime purpose seems to have been to champion cardboard milk cartons against plastic milk bottles. Its sole spokeswoman was reported in The Courier Mail to have a public relations company of her own and to be co-director of another company with a consultant to the Association of Liquid Paperboard Carton Manufacturers.[7]

The use of front groups to represent industry interests in the name of concerned citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously businesses lobbied governments directly and put out press releases in their own name or that of their trade associations. However the rise of citizen and public interest groups, including environmental groups, has been accompanied by a growing scepticism amongst the public about statements made by businesses:

Thus, if Burger King were to report that a Whopper is nutritious, informed consumers would probably shrug in disbelief...And if the Nutrasweet Company were to insist that the artificial sweetener aspartame has no side effects, consumers might not be inclined to believe them, either.

But if the 'American Council on Science and Health' and its panel of 200 'expert' scientists reported that Whoppers were not so bad, consumers might actually listen... And if the 'Calorie Control Council' reported that aspartame is not really dangerous, weight-conscious consumers might continue dumping the artificial sweetener in their coffee every morning without concern.[8]

The American Council on Science and Health has received funds from food processing and beverage corporations including Burger King, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, NutraSweet, Nestle USA as well as chemical, oil and pharmaceutical companies such as Monsanto, Dow USA, Exxon, Union Carbide and others. Its executive director, portrayed in the mass media as an independent scientist, defends petrochemical companies, the nutritional values of fast foods, and the safety of saccharin, pesticides and growth hormones for dairy cows. She claims that the US government spends far too much on unproven health risks such as dioxin and pesticides because of the public's "unfounded fears of man-made chemicals and their perception of these chemicals as carcinogens".[9]

The American Council on Science and Health is one of many industry-funded corporate front groups which allow industry-funded experts to pose as independent scientists to promote corporate causes. Chemical and nuclear industry front groups, with scientific sounding names, publish pamphlets that are 'peer reviewed' by industry scientists rather than papers in established academic journals.[10] Megalli and Friedman point out: "Contrary to their names, these groups often disregard compelling scientific evidence to further their viewpoints, arguing that pesticides are not harmful, saccharin is not carcinogenic, or that global warming is a myth. By sounding scientific, they seek to manipulate the public's trust."[11]

Corporate front groups use various strategies to promote the corporate agenda in environmental affairs. In the case of these pseudo-scientific groups, the aim is to cast doubt on the severity of the problems associated with environmental deterioration and create confusion by magnifying uncertainties and showing that some scientists dispute the claims of the scientific community. This has certainly been the strategy used by front groups opposing government action on climate change.

Some corporate front groups acknowledge environmental problems but argue that the solutions being promoted are too expensive, cost jobs, and would have detrimental economic consequences. For example, the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, representing chemical companies, argued that the substitution of Hydrochlorofluorocarbons, HCFCs, for chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, would not be in the public interest because of the costs.[12] They were thinking of course, of the costs to the chemical companies.

Such front groups tend to portray themselves as moderate and representing the middle ground and therefore often use words like 'reasonable', 'sensible' and 'sound'. The use of these words is a way of implicitly saying that environmentalists are extremists, whilst hiding their own extreme positions. They downplay the dangers posed by these environmental problems whilst emphasising the costs of solving them. Examples include the Coalition for Sensible Regulation, which is a coalition of developers and corporate farmers in the West, and the Alliance for Sensible Environmental Reform which represents polluting industries. The Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain operated between 1983 and 1991 to oppose amendments to the Clean Air Act which threatened stricter standards on electricity generating emissions. It did not have a membership of individual citizens yet spent more money lobbying in Washington in 1986 (thanks to funds from coal and electric-utility companies) than any other lobby group.[13]

Another strategy used by corporate front groups is to recognise environmental problems caused by corporations but to promote superficial solutions that prevent and preempt the sorts of changes that are really necessary to solve the problem. Sometimes they shift the blame from corporations to the individual citizen. For example, the Keep America Beautiful Campaign focuses on anti-litter campaigns but ignores the potential of recycling legislation and changes to packaging. It seeks to attribute litter and waste disposal problems to individual's acting irresponsibly and admits no corporate responsibility for the problem. In the 1970s Keep America Beautiful opposed bottle deposit legislation and more recently it has sought to discredit recycling with television advertisements, reports and brochures which emphasise the cost and limits of recycling.[14]

The Keep America Beautiful Campaign receives approximately $2 million per year from "some 200 companies that manufacture and distribute the aluminium cans, paper products, glass bottles and plastics that account for about a third of the material in US landfills" including Coca-Cola, McDonald's, 3M and Scott Paper. It is also funded by waste companies that landfill and incinerate hazardous wastes and prefer the focus of waste disposal to be on the tidy disposal of litter. The Campaign's directors include representatives of Philip Morris, Mobil Chemical and Procter and Gamble and PR giant Burson-Marsteller. In the past it has been coordinated by the public relations director of Union Carbide.[15]

Perhaps the most common strategy of corporate front groups is to portray themselves as environmentalists and the corporate views they are promoting as those of environmentalists. In this way corporate interests appear to have environmental support. The names of these groups are chosen because they sound as if they are grass-roots community and environmental groups; for example the National Wetlands Coalition, which has a logo that shows a duck flying over a wetland, is not campaigning to protect wetlands as its name suggests. The group was formed in response to a policy statement made in 1989 by President George Bush that his government's aim was to have no net loss of wetlands. The Coalition which is largely made up of oil and gas companies, including Exxon, Shell and Mobil, was formed to protect the right of its members to build and drill in wetlands without impediment.[16]

Some groups are formed purely to oppose a particular piece of legislation such as the Clean Air Working Group which was formed to fight the Clean Air Act of 1990 by coal companies that invested millions of dollars in the campaign. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice was established in 1991 by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America with a $500,000 grant and the help of public relations firm E. Bruce Harrison, to fight standards for fuel consumption in new cars. Its members include a variety of automobile manufacturers associations, motorists associations, and business groups. Behind the facade of the front group these organisations argue that fuel efficiency means smaller unsafer cars. A claim that is hotly denied by non-industry groups such as the Center for Auto Safety.[17]

The success of corporate front groups lies in their ability, in conjunction with corporate funded think tanks, research institutes and scientists, to confuse the public and politicians about the scientific basis of environmental problems and financial costs of genuine solutions. Surveys show that, as far as global warming is concerned, they have been less successful in persuading the public than in persuading politicians. The marjority of people surveyed in Australia and the US just before the Kyoto conference wanted their governments to commit to significant greenhouse gas reductions. The Australian government has not done so and we are yet to see whether the US Senate will support Clinton's agreement to do so at Kyoto.


1. Ozone Action, Ties that Blind: Industry Influence on Public Policy and Our Environment, Ozone Action, Washington D.C., 1997, p. 5.

2. Anon., 'Coalition urges resistance to greenhouse gas demands', Chemical Marketing Reporter, Vol. 246, No. 8 (1994) ; Bette Hileman, 'Plan to prevent climate change pleases industry', Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 71, No. 11 (1993) ; Anon., 'Business groups endorses Clinton's climate policy', Chemical Marketing Reporter, Vol. 244, No. 22 (1993) .

3. Merrill Rose, 'Activism in the 90s: changing roles for public relations', Public Relations Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1991)

4. Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman, Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Groups in America: Essential Information, 1991) , p. 4; Richard Stapleton, 'Green vs. green', National Parks (November/December 1992) , p. 35.

5. Ibid., pp. 184-5.

6. Bob Burton, 'Nice names - pity about the policies - industry front groups', Chain Reaction, No. 70 (1994) , pp. 17-18; Rowell, Green Backlash, pp. 238-240.

7. Bob Burton, 'Mothers Opposing Pollution (MOP)-all washed up', Chain Reaction, No. 76 (1996) .

8. Megalli and Friedman, Masks of Deception, p. 3.

9. Joel Bleifuss, 'Science in the Private Interest: Hiring Flacks to Attack the Facts', PR Watch, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1995) , p. 11; Anon., 'Public Interest Pretenders', Consumer Reports, Vol. 59, No. 5 (1994) , p. 319; Anon., 'Misguided Health Priorities Could Affect Economy', International Insurance Monitor, Vol. 41, No. 6 (1987) ; Anon., 'Dr blasts US health care priorities', Cash Flow, Vol. 91, No. 47 (1987) ; Anon, 'Public Interest Pretenders', p. 319.

10. Bleifuss, 'Science in the Private Interest', p. 11.

11. Megalli and Friedman, Masks of Deception, p. 3.

12. Ibid., p. 6.

13. Carl Pope, 'Going to extremes: Anti-environmental groups hide their extremism', Sierra, Vol. 80, No. 5 (1995) , p. 14; Anon, 'Public Interest Pretenders', p. 317.

14. Carl Deal, The Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations, Odian Press, Berkeley, California, 1993, pp. 62-3; Joel Bleifuss, 'Covering the Earth with "Green PR"', PR Watch, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1995) , pp. 6-7; Jack Rosenberger, 'A wolf in sheep's clothing?', E Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2 (1996) .

15. Ibid.; Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media (New York: St Martin's Press, 1986) , p. 73l.

16. Barbara Ruben, 'Root Rot', Environmental Action (Spring 1992), p. 29.

17. Megalli and Friedman, Masks of Deception, pp. 70-73; Ruben, 'Root Rot', p.29; Andrew Rowell, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) , p. 84.

Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at