Greenwash Alert: Why is Audubon Endorsing Golf Courses?

If you play golf, you might have played on a course touting “Audubon Certification.” But it doesn’t mean what you think. The familiar National Audubon Society – you know, the one founded in 1905 and well known for bird protection and nearly 500 chapters throughout the USA – is not involved. And this greenwashing is only going to be more visible in coming months.

Beware this certification!

Instead, there’s another group, based in New York, called Audubon International. (It has more recently spun off a gaggle of brands, which as far as we can tell are all affiliated and run by the same group of people: Audubon Lifestyles, the Audubon Network for Sustainability, Broadcast Audubon, the International Sustainability Council, and Audubon Outdoors.)

Something New Under the Sun?

The well-known, original Audubon Society logo

This is something of a vintage issue, oddly enough: a court decision in 1991 ruled that the National Audubon Society doesn’t have a unique claim to the “Audubon” namesake, and as a result, a gaggle of less virtuous and less green “Audubon” groups have sprouted up over time. Take a look at this Mother Jones report from 1999 on greenwash controversy about the very same Audubon International. And in 2000, one golf course development, opposed by the National Audubon Society, later got Audubon International’s endorsement, to the confusion of many. Furthermore, a 1998 New York Times article confused the two groups.

The lesser-known Audubon Lifestyles logo

In 2002, when The Green Life was still known as Earth Day Resources for Living Green, we highlighted a separate, yet similar, example of greenwashing in our annual Don’t Be Fooled report: Louisiana’s Audubon Nature Institute, which was relying on the Audubon name to greenwash its own golf course. (Read that old report here, if you like!)

But this issue just won’t go away. Today, Audubon International is rapidly expanding its certification scheme, including thousands of properties: ski resorts, golf courses, and hotel complexes. In fact, in August 2012, Audubon International announced its intent to expand its certification, recently announcing the first mega-resorts certified as Green Resorts, and a new partnership with the Florida DEP.

What Would John James Audubon Say?

From a Green perspective, it is good that someone is screening these properties for environmental practices. It pressures developers to do common-sense green initiatives, and offers golfers and other vacationers a chance to support an enterprise that isn’t totally screwing over the planet.

But using the Audubon name is inherently misleading. Not to mention also using similar imagery – the prominent sketch of a great egret – and referring to certified courses as “sanctuaries,” a term widely associated with National Audubon Society bird sacntuaries. In a special GolfWeek report in 2011, one former golf pro and golf course owner explained:

“If they called themselves the XYZ environmental golf company . . . they would not have had anywhere near the success they’ve had branding thousands of golf courses. . . . They’re well-intentioned, but it’s like you’re paying them a licensing fee (to use the Audubon name). And now that this has become profitable, they’re not going to pull the plug on courses by not certifying them. I’m a marketing guy, too, and it’s absolutely brilliant.” – Quoted in Bruce Selcraig, “Going for the Green”

A quick survey of golf course websites and news reports shows that, on a regular basis, reporters and the general public mistakenly call Audubon International “the International Audubon Society“, the “Audubon Society“, or “The National Audubon Society” (in a newspaper article). If reporters can’t keep it straight – and it’s their job to do so – then surely consumers are confusing the two groups.

And beyond that, all evidence shows that the Audubon International certification schemes are generally weak. An ecological study in 2005 from Mississippi State University compared Audubon International-certified courses with other courses as bird habitat. It found “the integrity of Audubon International’s Signature Sanctuary Program is in question because they have failed to significantly contribute, despite their assertion to the contrary, to the sustainability of wading bird populations – an important segment of Florida’s natural capital.” Indeed, for many “certified” courses, nothing other than a self-assessment and a $200 check are required, according to Selcraig’s investigation.

The National Audubon Society Responds

Regardless of the confusion over the name, The National Audubon Society says developments like golf courses are unlikely to ever be environmentally friendly. In a 2011 statement, the National Audubon Society said,

“Audubon does not certify golf courses, or any other development, as being environmentally sound.  Indeed, Audubon very often opposes such development.  Furthermore, Audubon sanctuaries are protected natural spaces for public enjoyment.  No Audubon sanctuary is certified for development.” (emphasis added)

We’ll continue to research this. But we’re eager for your feedback. Have you encountered this certification on golf courses or elsewhere? What did you think? Comment below.

Photo credit: Jesse Virden Jr., CC BY-NC-ND, via flickr. Logos used for nominative and reporting purposes.

Just saving this link here for further research:

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