By Richard Gaines
A week ago, The New York Times published a story on how an altrustic Environmental Defense Fund, encouraged by Wal-Mart, has been nudging the world's largest retailer toward more enlightened and sustainable opeations.
The report in last Saturday's edition described a scene in which Wal-Mart's CEO and EDF's president went Zen-like to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to discuss "climate change" and its effect on the sale of Wal-Mart products, including coffee.
Wal-Mart's motive for seeking enlightenment was a better image and market share; EDF's was selfless — a greener world. EDF, The New York Times reported, "does not accept contributions from Wal-Mart or other corporations it works for."
While technically correct, the story missed a key point, the reporter, Stephanie Clifford, conceded to an extent in an email exchange with the Gloucester Daily Times.
The $1.3 billion Walton Family Foundation, started in 1987 by Wal-Mart's founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and directed now by the second and third generation of Waltons, has been underwriting EDF's successful effort to replace the nation's mostly small-business, owner-operated fishing industry — especially in communities such as Gloucester — with a model that works like a commodities market, with fishermen's "shares" of an allotted catch traded and potentially concentrated in the hands with the deepest pockets.
The approach, which EDF and the Walton Foundation branded as "catch shares," was marketed in a policy paper primarily financed by the Walton Foundation and primarily produced by EDF in 2008. "Oceans of Abundance" was by a working group that included EDF's then-chairman N.J. Nicholas and board vice chairwoman Jane Lubchenco, who was chosen by President Obama to head NOAA in 2009, and has pushed catch shaers as the agency's national policy ever since.
In the four years through 2010, EDF had been granted more than $27 million by the Walton Family Foundation.
The relationship was tightened in 2007 when EDF opened a branch office in Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart's hometown, and put Sam R. Walton, grandson of the founders of the company on its board of directors.
In response to questions, New York Times reporter Clifford conceded, citing deadline pressure, to not considering the Walton Family Foundation as well as Wal-Mart itself as a source of reward for EDF.
"I didn't think to check the EDF board for Walton family members, or Walton Family Foundation donations," Clifford said in an email. "None of the third parties I'd spoken to had mentioned that connection, which isn't an excuse — I should have thought of it myself, but didn't.
"A reader pointed out this problem after publication," she wrote, "and I asked the EDF about it, and their response (follows)." It was not clear Friday whether the New York Times would print a clarification.
The New York Times sent the entire email chain to O'Neill & Associates, the Boston and D.C. consulting company employed by EDF.
"We certainly make no secret of the fact that Sam is on our board — it's on our website, and others have talked about it in the past," the unidentified EDF representative responded. "That said, I should have made doubly sure we flagged it for you during the reporting process. Hopefully, it didn't create any major headaches for you or your editors.
"In terms of our own guidelines, (the Walton Family Foundation) is a family philanthropy, and does not have operational ties to the company ... We also have strict internal procedures requiring all board members to recuse themselves from votes or decisions involving businesses with which they are affiliated."
Friday, EDF issued a statement to the Gloucester Daily Times, roughly repeating what its email to Clifford said, adding that "Sam Walton is one of 39 members of EDF's board of trustees, a group that includes leading figures from the scientific, academic, philanthropic and business communities."
EDF did not mention the large number of representatives of investors on the board.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.