Healing Our World Commentary: Marketing Environmental Destruction and Disease

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

Marketing Environmental Destruction and Disease

They are all children when they sleep.
There is no war in them.
They open their hands and breathe
in the slow rhythm given to humans by heaven.

Whether soldiers, statesmen, servants, or masters
they purse their lips like small children
and they all half-open their hands.
stars stand watch then and the arch of the sky is hazed over
for a few hours when no one will harm another.

If only we could talk with each other then,
when hearts are like half-open flowers.
Words would push their way in
like golden bees

God, teach me sleep's language.
-- Rolf Jacobsen, translated by Glenn Storhaug

Each day, activists and concerned citizens around the nation are fighting to stem the tide of environmental destruction, fueled by an economy based on endless consumption of resources and supported by a conservative presidential administration.

Yet for most of corporate America, every day is business as usual. Penalties are paid for violating environmental regulations and poisoning our earth, air and water. Yet the penalties are not really of great concern to business and industry, since they are kept to a minimum by a supportive Congress and are even tax deductible.

Victories and gains are visible everywhere, and even the most conservative industry must eventually bend to public outcry. But the occasional investigative report by the print and broadcast media and infrequent victories by consumer groups are offset by the massive public relations and marketing machines of the corporate world. Every hour of every day, subtly and not-so-subtly, insidious messages are fed to us as the media, government, and even the professionals we trust try to sell us on a way of life that is killing us.

Every day, in the United States alone, over $200 million is spent on advertising. The environmental connections are dramatic. Marketing firms are paid millions of dollars to come up with intentionally deceptive campaigns that will lure us to the promised land of consumerism - at all costs.

Here are some examples of this assault on our intellects and our emotions.

Science Teachers Conventions

Every year, nearly 15,000 teachers gather at conventions put on by the National Science Teachers Association. I have been to a few of them, and they are tragic examples of the effects of the lure of corporate dollars. Industries and their PR groups attend these conferences in great numbers, trying to justify everything from deforestation to extinction of species. They know that this is the perfect venue for targeting America's teachers and, ultimately, our children. Teachers are so starved for materials and handouts that they flock to these booths.


John Borowski inspects materials on display at the National Science Teachers Convention(Photo courtesy PR Watch)
Educator John Borowski said in an article for PR Watch, a group dedicated to exposing public relations scams, said education about the environment is being assaulted. Corporations are creating professionally produced, easy to use, and usually free curricula and lesson plans that are incredibly biased in favor of industry. Borowski says, "They were selling lies, and the teachers were buying - quickly filling their bags with curricula as corrosive as the pesticides that the Farm Bureau promotes."

A particularly insidious program is Project Learning Tree (PLT), a provider of environmental education materials that are universally embraced by environmental educators. But PLT is a program of The American Forest Foundation (AFF), a lumber company PR group that has as its members most of the clearcutters and destroyers of our forests. PLT works to promote paper products, logging and industrial management of our nation's forests. They offer this version of environmental education to students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade and claim to have reached more than 500,000 educators and 25 million students.

Borowski reminds us, "Parents must assume the role of front-line warriors in this winnable war. They must demand that any curricula provided by corporate sources be reviewed, just like the process by which textbooks are reviewed prior to adoption." He says, "Corporate predators in education are no different than those who peddle tobacco to our children."

Infant Formula

Expectant parents are the victims of well funded marketing campaigns by the makers of infant formula. Many infant formula companies aggressively market their goods in developing countries. Many activists boycott other products of the formula companies, charging that these companies provide free formula to local hospitals in poor areas, promoting its ease of use over breastmilk. When mothers return to the hospital for more formula after they are discharged, it is no longer free, but since their breast milk is now dried up, they have no choice but to buy it.

To make the product stretch, poor mothers will often dilute the formula with water, reducing its nutritional value. The water they use is often contaminated. Infant death rates have skyrocketed in these countries since the infant formula makers moved in.


Breastfeeding is the right of every child says the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) (Photo courtesy WABA)
The World Health Organization says that over 1.5 million babies die each year from lack of breastfeeding. In the United States, four of every 1,000 infants die because they are not breastfed. Polluted water is common in the U.S. as well, and many people use tap water to mix their babies' formula.

The infant formula industry is quick to point out that this does not mean that the deaths were because of infant formula use, but it doesn't take a statistician to figure out the connection. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, created by the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) in 1981, recommends that there be no advertising of breastmilk substitutes, no free samples of breastmilk substitutes to mothers, and no promotion of products through healthcare facilities anywhere in the world.

PR Watch reports that major public relations firms managed the response of such companies and one firm developed dossiers on the churches and other groups leading the boycott coalition. PR Watch says, "One major company used this information to play on divisions and rivalries within the coalition, using strategic, minimal 'reforms' to talk wavering 'moderates' into abandoning the boycott."

Parents in the United States are not immune to this kind of marketing, as I found out by personal experience. My wife is 39 weeks pregnant. This week, during a prenatal visit to our obstetrician we were handed a plastic diaper bag. On the bag was a label that read "Breastfeeding Instruction Bag." But the top of the label made it clear that an infant formula company provided the bag. Inside the bag, along with a set of baby bottles and a bag to keep them cold, was booklet entitled "Guide for the Breastfeeding Mother." Also in the bag was a huge stack of coupons and brochures and a free can of infant formula and advertisements for the entire line of formula products. Our doctor had the best of intentions. His belief is that it was OK to give the baby a bottle of formula every once in a while and that of the top five best selling formulas, he thought this was the best.

The PR firms would be very pleased, since many health practitioners buy into the fallacy that the best selling products are the best nutritionally. They are simply the best marketed products.


Warning sign (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
This strategy is a standard approach for many PR firms to neutralize activist groups on behalf of a variety of corporate clients. In a 1994 report by a major New York PR firm, leaked to a Greenpeace activist and passed on to PR Watch, a strategy was presented to the Chlorine Chemistry Council. The report advised them about how to cope with the mounting evidence against dioxin, a chemical byproduct of chlorine production that has since been shown to cause cancer.

Under a section titled "Prevent Medical Associations from Joining Anti-Chlorine Movement," the document advised industry to, "Create a panel of eminent physicians and invite them to review data regarding chlorine as a health risk and as a key chemical in pharmaceuticals and medical devices. ... Stimulate peer-reviewed articles for publication in the JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] on the role of chlorine chemistry in treating disease. ... Convince through carefully crafted meetings of [pharmaceuticals] industry representatives with organizations devoted to specific illnesses, e.g., arthritis, cystic fibrosis, etc., that the cure for their specific disease may well come through chlorine chemistry and ask them to pass resolutions endorsing chlorine chemistry and communicate their resolutions to medical societies."

The list is endless of the environment and environmental health issues that are manipulated by multimillion dollar PR campaigns. We are told to vaccinate our children, and ourselves, yet many vaccinations contain a mercury based preservative that produces higher levels of mercury in children than the EPA allows in adults.

City officials swear that tap water is safe, while independent lab tests usually show hundreds of chemicals and heavy metals present. Home improvement television programs are putting millions of people in contact with hazardous substances, including wood dust, which has recently been listed in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences "Report on Carcinogens."

We must be very selective in deciding where to place our trust. Our gut reaction may be the best guide. If something you are told doesn't feel right, it may not be, no matter who is telling you.


1. See the PR firm report on dioxin that was leaked to Greenpeace at PR Watch at: http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1996Q2/women.html.

2. Read the special report on the marketing of infant formula by Mothering Magazine at: http://www.mothering.com/SpecialArticles/Issue101/formulaprofit.htm.

3. Check out the website of the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers at: http://www.babymilk.com/navfrma.html. But be careful and remember their objective: to sell infant formula at all costs.

4. See how PR firms try to collect information on environmental organizations to develop their anti-environmental campaigns at: http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1996Q2/bart.html.

5. Read about a survey of PR industry workers who won't admit that they lie at: http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/2000Q2/liars.html.

6. Read about mercury in vaccinations at: http://www.mothering.com/SpecialArticles/Issue105/mercury105.htm.

7. Follow the actions of industry with Corporate Watch at: http://www.corpwatch.org/.

8. Read about Project Learning Tree and the American Forest Foundation at: http://www.plt.org/html/about_plt/about_index.html and at: http://www.affoundation.org/.

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found in his new home in Seattle, waiting for his new baby and looking around for someone to trust. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at http://www.healingourworld.com}