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WWF: Environmental care or greenwashing?

The WWF is the world's largest environmental organization with an annual profit of €525.000.000 in 2010. Thus, it has high potential to carry out various projects that benefit the environment and the people who depend on it. Nevertheless, it is debatable whether the donated money arrives where it is urgently needed. In the following, I will give a short summary of the accusations against the WWF and state my personal opinion on this issue.


After the broadcast of the documentary “The silence of the pandas” by Wilfried Huismann (original German title: “Der Pakt mit dem Panda”) on June, 22nd 2011 by the German federal TV station ARD, the WWF has been widely criticized and accused of greenwashing, corruption and irresponsible management. The WWF reacted by publishing a detailed “facts sheet” which intends to qualify the arguments mentioned in the film but the storm of protest could not be stopped. Many people still refer to the documentary when the WWF reports on successful campaigns. However, it's almost impossible to determine which party argues more accurately or rather less wrongly since many statements can't be verified by third parties.

As the originator of the petition “For real environmental care: Reform the WWF!” I will therefore not stick to plain numbers but take a closer look at the structures behind the organization.

But first of all, I would like to point out that animal welfare and environmental organizations pursue different goals. Although these topics are related to each other, the WWF as an environmental organization has to promote the conservation of habitats to ensure the survival of entire species. Thus, the WWF can't be held responsible for increasing consumption of meat or hunting events in your local area.

Human Resources

However, the WWF should raise their voice against the hunt of endangered species. In April 2012, the Spanish king and honorary president of the WWF, Juan Carlos, broke his hip during an elephant hunting trip in Botswana. Apart from the fact that elephants are highly intelligent and in some areas endangered mammals, killing one individual costs about $20,000, a sum which can hardly be justified as Spain is one of the countries that are most affected by the economic crisis: The unemployment rate is as high as never before and many people can't even afford the rent for their apartments. This waste of money has led to wide incomprehension, not only among environmentally-conscious people but also among some national WWF agencies. The WWF Austria, for example, stated on their Facebook page: “We are fed up: The general secretary of the WWF Spain, Juan Carlos del Olmo, urged the Spanish king Juan Carlos in an open letter to resign from his position as honorary president of the WWF”, a laudable initiative which hasn't led to any outcome so far.

This fact raises the question why the WWF offers such a position to somebody that apparently opposes the organization's principles. This also applies to other persons, though: In “The silence of the pandas” Dr. Hector Laurence from the WWF Argentina was interviewed about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He claimed that genetic engineering and biodiversity were perfectly compatible. Prince Philip, also honorary president of the WWF, justifies trophy hunting by saying that natural predators must be decimated in order to protect other animals. Thus, we have three examples for people who hold important offices but apparently oppose the WWF’s principles. It is normal to have different opinions in such a large organization but the members should at least agree upon a uniform policy concerning fundamental issues such as trophy hunting or genetically modified organisms.

Lobbying or Greenwashing?

Unfortunately, economic relations seem to be too important for that purpose. As a lobby for the environment the WWF has to negotiate with representatives of the economy in order to make compromises but the actual results are debatable: Organizations such as the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), the RSPO (Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil) and the RTRS (Round Table on Responsible Soy) were established in cooperation of representatives of the economy and NGOs and some of them are still managed by a council consisting of these parties. At first sight, this structure seems to be democratic and legitimate but it entails some major problems: According to the corresponding article on Wikipedia, only 7% of the full members of the RSPO, for example, are represented by environmental and social associations. Another point of criticism concerns insufficient guidelines. Greenpeace, for instance, doesn’t support the MSC any longer because fish products from overfished areas are also certified.

Tourism as Environmental Measure?

Moreover, the WWF is criticized for promoting tours in highly sensitive tiger reserves. These tours, offered by the travel agency and WWF partner “Natural Habitat”, are advertised as environmentally-friendly tours that don’t affect the natural habitats of the endangered big cats. However, the documentary “The silence of the pandas” shows that the term “ecotourism” is definitely misleading as entire convoys of jeeps exert pressure on the animals and their natural habitat. Although it is important to allow tourism in some areas that need to be protected, economic interests must not play a decisive role in the conservation of endangered species. Thus, the WWF should promote the establishment of protectorates of the IUCN category Ia and Ib (you can find explanations to the different types of protectorate in my essay on “endangered species”) in order to protect natural habitats from human influence.

What we demand...

The demanded reforms include higher transparency and more responsibility. We believe that private donators have a right to know which projects are financed with their money, which parties the WWF negotiates with and which decisions are made in the end. As the world's largest environmental organization, the WWF must become aware of its responsibility towards nature and people and advocate the establishment of strict protectorates in order to provide safe sanctuaries for endangered species. We are grateful for any support!