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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Epic greenwash or corporate-led salvation? Contrasting Vale and Dupont ad splurges in latest National Geographic

The latest National Geographic hit my mail box today. The central theme of this issue is ‘Population 7 Billion: How Your World Will Change’.

Great magazine, as millions of readers agree, and as ever the infographics are terrific. To my mind a brief scan provides magnificently convincing evidence that the world as we know it is in deep trouble:
·        Too many people;
·        Too many species being lost;
·        Too little idea of what we are losing as we destroy the greatest reservoirs of biodiversity, tropical forests and coral reefs.

It’s all laid out in visually-pleasing detail by Nat Geo.

What struck me as the most interesting content of this edition of this great publishing institution, however, were the two major advertising components.

·        Exhibit A is a 12-page insert headed ‘Biodiversity: The web of life that supports us all’, sponsored and branded in large part by the Brasil-based international mining giant Vale;

·        Exhibit B is a 3-page inside front cover fold-out advertisement sponsored by Dupont, the life sciences company now in its 3rd century of existence having started as a gunpowder manufacturer in America in 1802.

It is not unreasonable to ask if the venerable Nat Geo has lost its marbles in its commercial decision to embrace these sponsors? But that’s not my path of inquiry, or at least not entirely.

The Vale advertorial ends with this line: Vale. There is no future without mining. And there can be no mining without caring about the future.’

That’s as vacuous as it is inaccurate. There could well be a future without mining, and reducing or even eliminating mining may be critical to unlocking the sustainable future we need. Sure mining won’t end tomorrow, but it could end. For example, with enough renewable energy we wouldn’t need to mine thermal coal and drill for oil. And with less consumption, recycling could carry us through for many commodities we currently still mine.

Dupont is a company I am more familiar with, having consulted to them with Ecos Corporation a decade ago. It is a genuine ‘built to last’ company that has transformed itself repeatedly over 200-plus years through gunpowder, armaments, chemicals, synthetic materials, crop technologies and much more.

Its ad welcomes readers to the ‘Global Collaboratory’ (apparently you can see more at and carries the inclusive main headline ‘There are almost 7 billion reasons why we should work together’; going on to say:
  • Together, we can feed the world;
  • Together, we can decrease dependence in fossil fuels;
  • Together, we can protect what matters most (a reference to human safety).

Now, these are big claims too. But unlike those of Vale, they are backed by specific mainstream products and services that Dupont has developed or co-developed in the decade or so that it has made sustainability core to its business platform in its 3rd century.

Whenever I see giant corporations with huge environmental footprints and vast legacy problems advertising their sustainability commitments in glossy magazines I think … well, I think Shell, and that fails to fill me with confidence.

But in my final analysis I am far happier to accept a science company like Dupont that has survived so long by finding new solutions for new centuries over a relative upstart dirt shifter like Vale.

Vale’s advertorial trumpeted its three core pillars to qualify for such prominence in Nat Geo, albeit paid for. They were:
  • Being a sustainable operator;
  • Acting as a catalyst for local development;
  • Being a global agent for sustainability.
They are fine sentiments, and Vale obviously does some good stuff in its field, yet in my humble opinion it’s more feel-good corporate social responsibility than transformative sustainability.

Dupont by comparison – though far from perfect - is in the game to find solutions that could change the world and give it a profitable place in its 3rd century and beyond. I’d love to see Nat Geo’s own analysis before it went ahead with carrying the Vale insert and the Dupont fold-out. What’s the bet there was significant internal debate?

I’m keen to know how other Nat Geo readers respond to the January 2011 edition of the magazine, and what they make of these oh-so prominent advertising sponsors? Love to hear from Nat Geo and the companies too! 

1 comment:

  1. Found your blog after I googled Vale and National Geographic. Its not difficult to find information on Vale's environmental and human rights record. Another case of Corporate green washing. About time National Geographic took some responsibility.