• U.S.

Watch What You Eat

3 minute read
Eugene Linden

The scene: a couple is ordering dinner in a restaurant. The husband goes first. “Hmm, nice menu. I think I’ll have the Chilean sea bass.”

“Harry! Remember the ad in the New York Times saying that when those ships net sea bass, they kill millions of birds.”

“Oh, right, maybe the swordfish then.”

“No! They’re being fished to extinction. Didn’t you hear about the boycott?”

“O.K. I’ll go with the vegetable platter. What can be wrong with corn?”

“Are you kidding? Genetically modified corn may kill monarch butterflies.”

“May I at least have a salad? I have to eat before we go to Home Depot.”

“You know we can’t shop there, Harry. That ad last year said they purchase wood from an endangered rain forest in Canada.”

“Ha! Not so fast. I just saw a Rainforest Action Network ad thanking Home Depot for changing its purchasing policies.”

With newspaper ads urging us to save the oceans and forests, and TV spots about global warming, conservation groups are making more noise than ever. The violence of fringe anarchists stole headlines at Seattle’s World Trade Organization meeting, but more noteworthy was the huge peaceful demonstration by greens seeking to make sure trade pacts do not sacrifice the environment.

Politicians are paying attention. President Clinton just toughened restrictions on auto emissions, and with the environment expected to be big in the 2000 campaign, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are fighting for backing from eco-groups. As environmental concern becomes a core value in the U.S.–and in all other industrial nations–conservationists realize they can call on voters and consumers to hold slippery politicians and corporations to account.

If the Home Depot campaign is an indication, the greens have a good strategy. Reluctant to be called anti-business, they refer to “market campaigns” rather than consumer boycotts. To deter corporations from taking timber from untouched parts of British Columbia’s Great Bear Forest, the world’s largest vestige of coastal temperate rain forest, the Rainforest Action Network, along with the Sierra Club and other groups, used a stick and carrot on the big customers of lumber companies. The activists blasted Home Depot for buying Great Bear wood, but when the chain stopped, they ran ads praising the decision.

Other initiatives come from the deep pockets of eco-conscious foundations, such as the Pew Charitable Trust (assets: $4.7 billion) and the Packard Foundation ($17 billion). Next year, for example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with money from Packard, will lead a movement to persuade consumers to stop eating the endangered Chilean sea bass–similar to last year’s campaign that urged diners to “give the swordfish a break.” Says Julie Packard, vice chairman of the foundation and executive director of the aquarium: “Government regulations change with each new Administration. Consumer choices can have more lasting effects.”

To many environmentalists, the most important issue of all is the apparent onset of global warming. To alert the public–and urge reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions–the National Environmental Trust and the Union of Concerned Scientists have raised $11 million to launch history’s largest eco-ad campaign.

There’s a danger that conservation groups will put out too many messages or that the anarchists who rioted in Seattle will discredit the whole movement. But for now, the greens are betting they can get more of us to think about what we buy and how our pocketbooks can help protect the planet.

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