Home Depot in Middle of Patagonian Dam Debate

Rachel Tobin Ramos
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Five years after signing an agreement to protect Chile's native forests, Home Depot is being accused by an environmental group of reneging on the spirit of the pledge.

The group, International Rivers based in Berkeley, Calif., is asking Home Depot to pressure two of its Chilean wood suppliers to abandon a controversial dam project in Patagonia. The Chilean region is cherished by environmentalists as one of the world's last great wilderness expanses.

But Home Depot believes International Rivers is barking up the wrong tree, so to speak.

The disagreement over the Patagonia dams shows that though the Atlanta-based company has come a long way in its environmental evolution, it is not "green-proof" yet.

In the late 1990s, Home Depot's image was tarnished when environmentalists staged in-store protests over native forest products being sold in the big-box stores. The company has worked hard to clean up its "green" image by refusing to buy native forest products, hiring an environmental czar and brokering a 2003 agreement between activists and Chilean wood suppliers.

Now, activists are asking the company to prove its environmental mettle. They want Home Depot to use its clout to stop the dam project even though it isn't directly related to products sold in stores.

Activists often target large companies such as Home Depot to get more attention for their causes, according to an eco-business expert.

"They're being made a target not because they're bad but because they're big," said Joel Makower, executive editor of greenbiz.com, a Web site devoted to environmental business practices.

Strategic protesting

In "markets-based initiatives," activists work under the premise that pressuring the market for a product can change demand for it. Instead of protesting in front of the logging trucks, activists pressure large corporations to change their buying practices to bring about environmental and social change here and abroad. "It's a lot more bang for your buck than chaining yourself to a tree," said Makower.

One brand that changed its buying polices after similar pressure was Staples. In February the company stopped buying paper produced from Indonesia's endangered rain forests.

The largest brands often get pressured the most. "There's a tyranny of brand leadership taking place here," explained Makower. "Unfortunately, given that the media and others love a David-and-Goliath story, it's going to be up to Home Depot to prove that they're not evil."

For International Rivers, the issue in Patagonia boils down to this: Home Depot buys about $50 million in wood from two Chilean companies involved in the controversial dam project, the group says.

International Rivers wants Home Depot to pull its wood contracts unless the companies, the Matte Group and the Angelini Group, pull out of the dam project. The wood products they supply to Home Depot stores include moldings, millwork, pine doors and plywood.

The dams would generate hydroelectricity for Chile, a country that even activists agree needs new energy sources.

Activists, however, say damming the free-flowing Pascua and Baker rivers in five places and cutting a 1,500-mile-long path through native forests for transmission lines would destroy the habitat for numerous species, including the huemul, an endangered Andean deer.

"We let Home Depot know back in October that this issue could put them at risk because the controversy over the dams in Patagonia is today one of most high-profile environmental issues in the U.S. market," said Aaron Sanger, the Patagonia campaign director for International Rivers.

Spotlight and sponsor

Sanger is leading the campaign, which launched at an Earth Day event at Zoo Atlanta. The event was sponsored with a $50,000 donation from the Home Depot Foundation.

At a sparsely attended morning concert, Dana Lyons, a tongue-in-cheek country singer with an environmental passion, called upon Atlantans to sign a petition and send letters asking Home Depot to stop buying from the Chilean companies.

Lyons visited Patagonia in January. "I got to see where the dams are proposed, and I got to swim in the rivers," said Lyons. "It's the usual: Let's destroy paradise to power a mall in Santiago. It's an environmental horror."

As he sang onstage with a Home Depot banner in the background, Lyons did not bad-mouth the company, but did urge action.

"Home Depot has a pretty good record working with native-forest issues in Chile," he said. "Home Depot has an opportunity to do something wonderful here. You can do it, Home Depot, and we can help," he said, taking a cue from a Home Depot ad slogan.

International Rivers in April urged Forests.org members to e-mail Home Depot CEO Frank Blake. The form letter on the Web site includes this language: "Failure by Home Depot [to discontinue business with Matte group] will ensure your corporation's green image will be permanently tarnished."

Sanger also sent letters to 50 U.S. wood buyers. Home Depot rival Lowe's doesn't currently buy products from Matte or Angelini, so it won't be targeted by this campaign, he said.

But for International Rivers, Home Depot's support would really be a prize. "Home Depot has a lot more power to help than anyone else on our list," said Sanger.

Depot: Unfairly targeted

Home Depot sees it differently. Ron Jarvis, Home Depot's environmental chief, said the company is adhering to the 2003 agreement under which its Chilean suppliers agreed not to cut down endangered forests to plant tree farms.

The wood it's buying from the Chilean companies is not coming from native forests, said Jarvis. And as for the dam project, he doesn't see how it is a Home Depot issue.

"I would guess if the Matte Group pulled out completely, the dam would happen anyway," said Jarvis. "If we are going to take an environmental stance, it's going to be completely fact-based and on something we know we can change. We think our influence on this issue is extremely small. We don't need to become a company that has to weigh in on every environmental issue. I think it becomes empty calories."

Jarvis was appointed by Home Depot in 2000 to handle environmental issues. And it was Jarvis who got environmentalists and Chilean suppliers in the same room, several times, to hash out the 2003 agreement.

The dam issue, however, isn't simple for Home Depot, Jarvis said. Home Depot's suppliers are not "the ones cutting the forest nor do they own the land being cut," Jarvis said. "They [the suppliers] are minor investors in the larger company that's working on the dam."

International Rivers disagrees, saying that the suppliers are major partners in the dams, and if they pulled out, they could stop the dams. Home Depot should comply with the "spirit" of the 2003 pledge to protect native forests, Sanger said.

"We're talking about an issue of public controversy and Home Depot's publicly expressed values, not whether clear-cut wood will show up on Home Depot's shelves," said Sanger. "When Home Depot says it's about supporting communities and protecting forests, is that true or not?"

Healthy push and pull?

For Nicholas Eisenberger, managing principal of Green Order, a New York-based eco-sustainability strategy firm, what he's hearing is a "healthy dialogue. It may not be fun for everyone involved or it may not get results as quickly as everybody wants."

Eisenberger has consulted for companies from Office Depot to GE. Like Home Depot, companies that are market leaders have more responsibility but also get more criticism.

"It's a two-sided coin," he said. "It's important for environmentalists to understand ... the limits of a corporation's reach. On the other hand, left alone, some companies wouldn't push their thinking far enough."


Pro: Patagonia Dam Protests

International Rivers says two Home Depot suppliers are involved in a hydroelectric dam project on the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Patagonia. Home Depot should pull contracts from the suppliers to protest a 1,500-mile path to be cut through native forests for transmission lines, which would cause loss of animal habitat, the group says. "Home Depot has an opportunity to do something wonderful here. You can do it, Home Depot, and we can help," said country singer Dana Lyons.

Con: Native Forest Agreement Intact

Home Depot's wood suppliers aren't currently cutting native forests to supply moldings, millwork, pine doors and plywood to its stores, said Home Depot environmental chief Ron Jarvis. The suppliers are still in compliance with the native forest agreement of 2003. "We don't need to become a company that has to weigh in on every environmental issue. I think it becomes empty calories," said Jarvis.