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Green or Greenwashing? Announcement from Home Depot sparks enthusiasm and controversy

news_homedepotAn eco-conscious approach to pest management is now up for debate thanks to a memo recently released by a Home Depot senior executive.

After a year and a half of persistent negotiations with the Santa Cruz nonprofit Ecology Action, Home Depot released a memo in early May that supports integrated pest management. The approach uses low-toxic methods to curb the critters that munch on garden veggies and dash across the kitchen counter.

Sent by Senior Vice President Ron Jarvis, the memo gives the green light for California Home Depots to participate in eco-minded training programs lead by environmental nonprofits and government agencies. Fliers and product labels made by environmental groups can be dispersed in stores, so long as individual store managers approve.

“We support the trainings 100 percent,” says Jarvis, who says the request first reached his desk in the late spring. “We turned out the memo quickly once the request got to the right place.”

The decision has Ecology Action busy preparing presentations and fliers, even while other nonprofits criticize the memo —and the hardware chain— for taking a weak stance on environmental issues.

“Labeling the bad stuff is helpful, but it won’t solve the problem,” says Steve Scholl-Buckwald, managing director of the San Francisco-based Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America. “People need to stop selling and buying the toxic chemicals.”

According to the memo, Home Depot stores will continue selling the same chemical products, in bulk and otherwise. The memo does not ask stores to begin stocking eco-friendly or certified-organic pest management products. Store participation is not mandatory.

Ecology Action admits there won’t be any major changes, yet they maintain that the training is necessary. “We want to work with Home Depot on sourcing better products, but that will be the next step. Right now it’s about making small changes in people’s gardens, and we need to have a physical presence in [the stores] to do this,” says Sherry Bryan of Ecology Action.

Bryan has led staff trainings at Orchard Supply Hardware, Pro Build (formerly Lumberman’s/San Lorenzo) and independent local nurseries for the past five years. Labels that highlight less-toxic pest-control products have been posted on shelves, and fliers about low and non-toxic treatments for rose disease, aphids and other garden problems are distributed to customers.

As part of a Bay Area environmental coalition, similar programs have been launched at Rite Aid and big box stores in San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland. Called ‘Our Water Our World,’ the regional coalition helps cities meet federal Clean Water Act Standards. Ecology Action partners with the Counties of Santa Cruz and Monterey to help them meet federal requirements, and educate consumers about the sources of chemical toxins —including those that flow to the ocean from home gardens.

Yet, despite a lot of groundwork with local chemical retailers, “things at Home Depot have been hit and miss,” says Bryan.

While 12 Home Depots in the larger Bay Area chose to participate —including the 41st Avenue location— many others originally rejected having a nonprofit presence in the store.

“If the manager was environmentally aware they would say, ‘come on in,’ but the next store would say ‘sorry we don’t have corporate approval, so we can’t have you,’” says Bryan.

The Salinas Home Depot initially allowed Ecology Action to train employees in 2003, but attitudes changed three years later, and the welcome was no longer extended. “This type of a situation undoes years of work,” says Bryan, “and people had this problem all over Northern California.”

In response, Bryan began negotiating with the Home Depot corporate office. Phone calls and e-mails were a regular part of her schedule for a year and a half.  “Sometimes people would forget who I was and I would have to start over at the bottom,” she says.

Her efforts were finally rewarded this spring. Since Home Depot released its memo granting corporate approval for the training, things have slowly begun to change. The Salinas Home Depot has allowed the non-profit to resume employee trainings and community events, and the Seaside Home Depot, which never allowed trainings, opened its doors.

“They really rolled out the red carpet for us since the memo came out,” says Bryan. “It’s a dramatic difference.”

Yet some local business leaders and environmental advocates remain wary.

Lydia Corser, owner of the Santa Cruz hardware and design store Greenspace, applauds Home Depot’s efforts. However, she doesn’t predict any substantial changes will follow the memo, or the environmental training programs.

“It takes a big commitment to research the toxicity of a product and you need a lot of experience to solve the myriad of pest problems that customers have,” she says. “You can’t expect employees to gain this in one seminar.”

Corser sells only biodegradable and certified organic pesticides and weed killers. Many of her products have received certification from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), indicating they are safe to use on organic farms.

“Given the trendiness and popularization of green products, stores are starting to market themselves as being eco-friendly, but stores haven’t always done the full amount of research to know what the claim means,” says Corser.

Bloggers in the green-design field criticize Home Depot’s promotion of paint and varnishes that contain low amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Benjamin Moore, Safe Coat and other paint suppliers have surpassed this designation, and market products that contain virtually no detectable VOCs.

The company has also come under fire for purchasing unsustainably harvested wood, and while Home Depot says it doesn’t plan to buy any old growth wood from Patagonia, the company is scrutinized for its relationship with a supplier that plans to clear cut and dam a critical part of the ecosystem.

“They are doing business with a supplier that is promoting a very destructive hydroelectric development project in Patagonia, yet they are unwilling to take definitive action to distance

themselves from the controversy,” says Gary Graham Hughes of the Berkeley-based environmental non-profit International Rivers.

Yet Jarvis says the company is making great progress. “A company we do business with has part ownership in a company that is involved with the dams, and while we can’t speak out about whether hydroelectric dams are the right or wrong decision, we are cautious about which products get the green label, and we have cut relations with suppliers in the past for poor environmental performance,” says Jarvis.

Fifty-percent of Home Depot’s black plastic plant and seedling containers will soon be replaced with biodegradable or recyclable pots. On Earth Day 2008, the company released a home paint line called Fresh Air that uses VOC-free coloring and base paint. Many competing eco-friendly lines use VOCs in the coloring, even while the base paint is chemical free.

“If it was up to me I would ban the words ‘green,’ ‘eco,’ or ‘environmentally friendly,’ because these are often so misleading to the public,” says Jarvis. “Instead I would prefer a lifecycle assessment that rates the manufacturing and distribution of a product, and allows consumers to buy the products with the highest rating.”

When it comes to integrated pest management, labeling might not be a cure-all.  “The idea has been watered down—it’s not about ecological pest management. People still uses a lot of toxins, and once the labeling standards are established, it drives out improvement over time,” says Scholl-Buckwald.

While he voices support for environmental education, and for more eco-friendly pest management, he warns that a short training program is just the beginning. For, according to Bryan, some of the stores allow only 30 minutes for the training. She says she has even had to speak to some employees as they are stacking shelves or assisting customers. “Sometimes fork lifts have been driven over flier displays,” she says, “but we have also seen progress and a lot of support from Home Depot employees.”

Through the program, salespeople at Home Depot will be taught to use toxic chemicals as a last resort. They will also be taught how to cultivate good insects that eat pests, and how to recommend biodegradable, low-toxic replacement products. Presentations will focus on moisture control and physical traps, and how to gauge whether organic products are working. “People might not see the dead slugs and snails because they die farther away from the plant,” says Bryan. “But low-toxic products do work.

“Places like the [Santa Cruz-based] Garden Company are staffed by trained horticulturists, while the big box stores want to sell cheap stuff,” she adds. “But some people do want to make changes, and in order to make a behavior change people need multiple reminders and prompts, and that is the point of having labels, employee education and fliers.”

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