We all know there's a lot of greenwashing going on these days, with companies making empty gestures to suggest they're doing great things, often to cover up the not-great things they're doing. But let's look at what they could be doing instead – real greening.
The Whole Foods Garden-for-Every-Store Strategy
Now this may just apply to the Mid-Atlantic Region – Whole Foods is a very regionally-directed company – but at least around here the company's urban gardening effort is deep, widespread, and having an impact. Though it didn't look that way at first.
A few of us garden writers attended a press release announcing WF's $25,000 contribution to start gardens and beehives at 56 community centers in DC. The mayor and other politicians were there holding the big fake check and grinning, along with WF's regional president Ken Meyer (the shockingly young guy second from the right). But you know how gardeners think: How far can $446 per garden go? And supplies are nice but who's doing the labor, especially the on-going maintenance? Oh, and who's teaching the neighbors to garden?
Sure, we're kind of jaded about press conferences, but that's where follow-up phone calls come in handy – to city Parks and Recs folks and to WFs' gardening coach Mark Smallwood.
Turns out they have an ambitious goal – to have gardens near every WF store in this region – something that's already under way in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to much acclaim. (In Pittsburgh they turned a vacant lot into a 4,000-square-foot community garden, with rain barrels and all. WF staff oversee the garden on company time.) So when a Parks and Rec organizer approached the company to hit them up for money, they were a really soft target.
The goal of each community-center garden is to teach kids about the environment and healthy eating – primarily by getting them to grow food. Ancillary programs include teaching cooking and preserving, with teaching taking place in stores, schools and other community buildings. They think of these as agricultural learning centers.
But back to who does the work. Americorps volunteers will do the installation of raised beds and what-not, and the Parks and Rec's "queen of greening" will be traveling the circuit to oversee the gardens, but we all know that's not enough. When I read in the press release that WF is "encouraging area store employees to participate in all aspects of the program, such as constructing and tending to gardens, providing scraps for composting, hosting workshops, and hosting cooking demonstrations" I was skeptical. Sounded to me like project death, but if WF employees are actually doing this in other cities, especially on company time, then okay, I'm a believer.
But bottom line, community gardens have got to be gardened by people in the community, and it turns out there's a whole slew of groups committed to helping, though not the group they need the most – D.C.'s Master Gardeners. (Instead, they're still getting "community service" credit for pulling weeds at the British Embassy and other private gardens…it's a long story.)
All in all, my skepticism remains on standby but I'm pretty encouraged by WF's commitment and the organizing abilities of the DC Parks and Rec folks. Just one last dubious moment from the press conference was when Mayor Fenty called the $25,000 donation "the largest donation of its kind in the country". Hmm, wonder what "'its kind" means – keep reading.
Fiskars' Garden Make-Overs and Grants
So what about companies who don't have retail stores embedded throughout the city? What if, in fact, you're a Finnish tool manufacturer? Fiskars's Project Orange Thumb is their answer.
This is a combo plan, starting with small grants of $2,000 to 22 existing worthy projects every year. (Applications are now open, and the deadline is 2/19/10.)
But what's more exciting – because they're dramatic one-day events and I actually visited one in the making – are the large garden make-overs in select cities. Recipient cities so far include Chicago, San Francisco, Orlando, Toronto, Atlanta and Baltimore, whose Oliver Street neighborhood saw the instant transformation of a vacant lot into a garden. Information about the Oliver Street Project is here, and others are in the sidebar.
It all starts with Fiskars's Nicole Mayasich's hunt for cities with great partnership potential, and in Baltimore she found a serious partner in the city's Cleaner Greener initiative. Then Joe Lamp'l was brought in to meet with the community and based on what they want, planned their garden. Then for the BIG DAY Joe returned, along with in this case about 15 Fiskars employees from their headquarters in Wisconsin (including their national prez). Other volunteers came from the state transportation agency, plus the local and national offices of the EPA – about 100 volunteers in all. The nearby Home Depot coughed up some donated goods, but the largest financial contributor was Fiskars, which spent "well over $100,000 on the Baltimore project," according to Nicole. That included a good-looking wrought-iron fence around the entire property.
The result is a place to grow fresh vegetables and flowers, which will be distributed in the neighborhood, and a place for people to learn. Several schools and community groups will have access to the garden.
And then there's Scotts
I'd intended to compare these approaches side by side but after talking to folks, I nixed that idea – the companies are just too different. I say hey, as long as there's serious commitment and attention paid beyond the big photo op, great. As long as there's lots of community buy-in and attention to the long term, great. As long as it's not companies just BS'ing us about how environmentally responsible they are.
Speaking of which, a little Googling of the word "greenwashing" yields more than one mention of the gardening world's very own Top Gun – Scotts – and they managed to make it to this list of Top Ten Greenwashers. It's no wonder there's so much squirming among garden writers over Scotts's support of the Garden Writers Association. Scotts even does some of their own squirming – like donating big-time to our national symposium but declining to show up with a booth on the trade show floor to talk to us face to face.
Full disclosure: Fiskars is a sponsor of my website and blog. No, there's no quid pro quo about covering their
good deeds but because I know them and Joe Lamp'l, I dropped in on the big event and cite it as an example. Good things
happen when good companies partner with garden writers.