The Risk-Monger

Green Indulgences

The plan is pretty simple. Forest product companies pay WWF undisclosed sums, memberships, donations and country fees to be part of a forest network. They buy the right to put a panda logo on the back of their loggers’ shirts. And then: Chop! Chop! Chop!

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN), the NGO group Global Witness released a scathing report on how little GFTN members are doing or obliged to do, how little WWF is enforcing their code, and how little transparency there is about actual achievement of the entire project (after 20 years). WWF lashed back that they are doing lots to save the forests and have recently announced that they are looking for a third party to assess their transparency. This is an interesting sideshow, but the Risk-Monger is more interested in how much money WWF is receiving to absolve the forestry industry of their sins.

Global Witness is starting from a fallacious assumption: that WWF’s Global Forest and Trade Network was ever intended to improve the state of the forests. The Global Witness criticism is that WWF provided no transparency and showed how GFTN members were not acting in accordance with the GFTN codes. Perhaps WWF’s alleged lack of transparency has to do with the reality that it would be impossible to ever show (positively or negatively) how such a programme of promises and declarations could ever influence the state of the forests.

Global Witness should have focused on the N in GFTN – it is all about networking. WWF simply had the idea to form a network, built solely around good intentions, with the forestry, lumber, timber industries (including good-hearted, rich, users of paper like banks and food packagers as well as government agencies not wanting to be left out). Through this network framework, WWF would be able to maintain an important influence in the debate and could use this network for its own projects. They would raise a lot of money from this network, and as they would be saving the forests, nobody would look too closely at how much they raised or how it would be spent. The network members (2010 GFTN annual report claimed 288 members) would pay WWF in the form of memberships, donations, fees and contribute technical expertise in return for the sniff of credibility that the panda logo would bestow upon them.

Let’s not be polite. WWF is a very rich, eco-religious organisation that feels it has a divine rite, much in the same way as the Catholic Church felt it was above public scrutiny in the time of Martin Luther. I am struggling to see the difference between the Church selling indulgences to absolve people of their sins, and WWF’s selling of its logo to absolve companies of unsustainable behaviour (ie, sins). You could not question the Church back then, and you were told to trust that the money would be for acts of charity. Today, it seems we cannot question WWF and must trust that the money is for saving the planet. As the GFTN website and annual reports are quite opaque, the Risk-Monger contacted George White, the WWF head of GFTN, to ask for details of how much they received in indulgences – but he received no reply. (The Risk-Monger was totally transparent in his request, by the way.)

So regarding WWF green indulgences for their forestry scam, this is what I could deduce from WWF’s anything but transparent marketing brochure they called the 2010 GFTN annual report.

Page 34 of this annual report was devoted to finances, but WWF did not state their revenues and were very unclear on the pie chart of their division of revenue sources (a large percentage was mysteriously deemed “unfunded”). On their expenses pie chart, which they estimate as approximately 7 million USD (“approximately”? Are they not quite sure? Couldn’t they be bothered to be more precise?), they acknowledge that only 39% of their expenses went toward activities. ONLY 39% went to forests! In other words, 4.27 million USD of logging indulgences went directly to WWF (salaries, overhead and travel costs) – but that is assuming that we knew how much they actually received. We can only assume that, with such a dismal success record, WWF would close the GFTN programme down after 20 years if it had been costing the organisation money (so we have to assume a revenue in surplus of “approximately” seven million USD per year). How much they are profiting from this programme is not for us to even dare to question … they are, after all, saving the planet and absolving loggers of their sins.

Perhaps we need some sort of Protestant reformation of today’s dominant eco-religious organisations, to ensure that they start acting ethically and honestly, to control how they raise and spend money, and to start to scrutinise more seriously their claims and influence in the policy arenas. We have seen, with all of the episodes of Climate-Gate (who was responsible for the Himalayan glacier gaffe? – WWF!), that these NGOs are able to do serious damage to public trust in institutions, not to mention the damage to the health of the planet from their idealistic, non-scrutinised solutions (biofuels? WWF again). NGOs like WWF cannot continue to believe that their ambition to save the planet should over-ride more human acts of propriety.

This concludes my summer series on the ethics of environmentalism. Time to get back to work.

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  1. Interesting report, Risk Monger, and well argued.

    But despite the emotion appealed to in the piece by calling the WWF a ‘quasi religious’ environmentalist NGO, they are hardly seen as such. The organisations employs former members of the US Department for Agriculture and as for the missing funding data, the cash mainly comes from corporations.

    Therefore, this does not serve to discredit real environmentalist movements, which argue against the ‘risks’ of continuing to live as unsustainably as we currently do! What are the risks of doing so?

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