Confessions of a Former Eco-Flack: Part 1

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Snake_oil_salesman_small.jpgTwo years ago, before the Orwellian nightmare kicked into full effect, I was becoming reasonably happy with the life that was taking shape. Somehow, both my mother and I were repeatedly bouncing back from all of the covert manipulation and interference that we did not realize was coordinated. I would find myself driving down Montana's Bitterrot Valley to pick up a side of beef one week, and riding a New York subway the next. I loved the "city mouse/country mouse" dichotomies and constant movement -- my plan was to set up a three-city Missoula/New York/Paris existence, writing about eco-fashion and leading eco-fashion and other tours.

Ironically, if the people who had been trying to destroy my life left me alone to take that path, I would likely have just created a lovely existence in the eco-PR bubble. My thesis might not have focused on faux post-environmentalism. I wouldn't have understood the limitations of my well-intentioned but misguided focus on image-making as the route to social change. I wouldn't have finally begun to break out of the inadvertent racism that kept me frozen, unable to understand what small part I could play in redressing injustices that I had not created.
In the years after the Iraq invasion, I didn't have much stomach for politics because my own political engagement -- letter-writing, phone banking, marching -- didn't seem to matter. Also, I was completely disillusioned with the anti-war movement, academia, and Left political action in general. From my perspective, those on the left were trying to convince people that they shared common interests, without appealing to their identities. It also seemed to me that academic approaches to social change were insulated and nearly impossible to communicate to those who didn't want to spend their time learning academic-ese. I gave up the idea of pursuing a PhD and thought that PR strategy was the way to reach would-be environmentalists or humanitarians.

That's why TreeHugger.com ended up being a great fit after I let go of my own eco-style endeavor in 2005. We reached a huge audience (much bigger than my academic publications and talks ever would), and I understood our goal as allowing mainstream people a way to identify with environmental values without having to move into a yurt or grow out their leg hair. It felt like a legitimate and important enterprise. I think a lot of the early writers, like me, came on board with a strong sense of purpose. It felt like we were building a movement rather than a business.

I had faith that promoting/informing about ethical companies was a social good. Supporting the "green"/"ethical" economy was a means to the creation of a cleaner, fairer world. It was possible to break away from all of the jobs vs. environment wedges. While doing this, I accepted that I was promoting an elitist/aspirational point of view by "cooling" environmentalism. In our status-obsessed culture, getting influential consumers on board seemed essential to demonstrating that "green" was not marginal or wacky.

In general, I was pretty good about being transparent about the products I wrote about. But the pervading TH philosophy (as communicated to me) was that the Internet is "self-healing" so that if our writing wasn't thoroughly researched, it would get worked out in post comments. Overall, my desire to make green fun, accessible and sexy did tend to override an emphasis on facts.

Toward the end of my time at TreeHugger, in 2007 as the goal of making green "hip" was becoming a reality, I became critical of all of the greenwashing. There was no common understanding of what "green" meant, and consumers were being duped by false marketing claims. When I got in trouble for criticizing Edun's lack of transparency, I began to see that "winning friends and influencing people" was more important to TreeHugger than giving consumers accurate information.

Also, it was becoming clear that bringing on new, enthusiastic writers was a bigger priority than rewarding loyal and experienced ones. Newbies were happy to show their team spirit by contributing unpaid time (I certainly had). Those of us who had been compensated for work at much below its value were not rewarded for helping to build and promote the site. It started to feel less like we were a bunch of people who came together to promote a certain type of change, and more like our idealism was being used to keep costs low in the eventuality of a sale. In addition, our knowledge had become much more valuable as the "green marketplace" exploded and TreeHugger itself became more valuable -- after putting in so much underpaid time out of sheer idealism it seemed fair to finally receive compensaiton at market value.

When snippets about sale offers popped up in NYTimes articles, a group of writers had virtual discussions about what would be fair in the event of a sale. In TreeHugger-wide emails, I pressed to create an open forum for discussing the issue as an alternative to small group conference calls. The next thing I knew, my TreeHugger email had been revoked in a panic (apparently to prevent any further discussion) and I was no longer a writer -- a breach of our independent contractor agreement.

This was all a huge slap in the face, because I had drunk the eco-lifestyle Kool-Aid for so long. The site was dedicated to green and ethical consumption, and zapped me suddenly for leading advocacy for a fair and open forum. What? I found out that not only was my email revoked, but messages to the account that I had used for nearly all email for 1.5 years were being forwarded to the COO. It was my first inkling of the types of privacy violations I had unknowingly been subjected to for years.

Of course, later I would find that a number of the writers were moles, and that exploiting all of our idealism was part of a business model not unlike Wal-Mart's (I so related when I watched this doc). The idea was to make the site function as well as possible as cheaply as possible so that it looked like the best possible investment when it came time to sell. Those of us who were dedicated to environmental communication were willing to work for cheap for a struggling, independently owned site. We didn't know our idealism was being used. And -- Graham Hill did in fact sell the site for $10 million a couple of months after my contract was breached. So icky.

I do believe that, out of TH's face-saving necessity, the writers got more out of the deal than they would have had I not been "breached."

The lesson here was that image making doesn't matter a lick if we all lack basic rights. Though I have struggled intellectually and practically with the excesses of unfettered capitalism, I was not and am not "anti-business." I spent most of my time as a TreeHugger writer promoting businesses I felt great about. It's just an issue of fairness and decency. In terms of economic stimulation, doesn't it make sense for lots of "little people" to be paid fairly, and to stimulate the economy with their purchases, than for one person to amass ridiculous wealth because he was/is the idea person? Such entrepreneurship may seem cool and interesting but really it's just creepy (especially if the idea person may or may not try to ruin your life/have you killed because you're ruining his image by telling the truth).

We've just watched Wall Street rob the country blind, seen these excessive bonuses, and here we are trying to create economic stimulus. From this layperson's point of view, it seems as though workplace rights/security/decent pay and benefits, and executive compensation in the same stratosphere as the lowest paid worker, are not impediments to competitiveness, but necessary. Advocating for them could be hip/sexy/fun if we want, but does it have to be?

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1 Comments

sitysliker said:

applaud you for calling out Edun. Since you wrote that post two years ago, many more in the so-called green movement have been addressing greenwashing. People need to know this isn't a trend but a real movement toward a more aware and responsible lifestyle.

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Six Hours A Week Is:

A coping strategy, advocacy outlet, and form of protection. My life has been nearly destroyed by the unconstitutional practices of politically/socially-motivated private intelligence contractors and the corruption and cronyism that allow them. Apparently because I speak out in ways that prioritize the little guy and human and environmental health above gargantuan profit margins, and believe that facts are as important as PR spin, I was someone who had to be completely discredited. In 2007, after a few months of a surreal and relentless invasion of privacy and dignity, I started to spend six hours each week researching, communicating about, and advocating legal and ethical responses to assaults on our shared democratic and republican ideals. For most of that time I was writing from the perspective of someone whose life was manipulated into a constant state of terror and emergency. In 2010, many of the array of entrapment attempts seem to have failed and it seems no longer possible to get away with such excessive, obvious harassment and overt interference. As we take more practical steps to address what has been allowed to happen to my family, we do expect to see some more harassment and intimidation. But I should be able to chronicle it from a more measured perspective, rather than that of someone in constant fear. Part of me would like to go back and delete earlier posts, because even I find them hard to relate to in some ways. But this blog has been one of our only forms of protection as everyone in any official capacity ignored the truth and tried to spin and frame us into the troublemakers and perpetrators of one form or another. So I leave it up as a form of protection, a record of what has occurred, and (with luck) the account of our way back to credibility and some form of legitimate justice. All content on this site is property of Kyeann Sayer. All rights reserved.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Kyeann published on February 8, 2009 1:05 PM.

Neverending Harassment? Time to Out (Alleged) Funders and Operatives was the previous entry in this blog.

Tolerating Religious Diversity vs. Endorsing Terrorism is the next entry in this blog.

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