On Friday, Scotts Miracle-Gro entered a plea agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pay $12.5 million in fines and penalties for the company’s misuse of chemicals in some of its products. U.S. District Judge James L. Graham accepted Scotts Miracle-Gro’s pledge to pay $4 million for treating a wild bird food product with pesticides and will also perform $500,000 worth of community service. Separately, without admitting or denying the allegations, the company will pay a fine of just over $6 million to address misdemeanor charges related to some of its products’ registration issues.
The trouble started in 2008, when Scotts Miracle-Gro voluntarily recalled its line of wild bird food products after company officials discovered they had been treated with pest control chemicals not authorized under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. The $4 million dollar fine, according to the Wall Street Journal, is the largest criminal fine ever imposed under this legislation, which dates back to 1947 and was revised twice during the second Bush administration.
The announcement is a setback for Scotts Miracle-Gro, which in addition to its pest control products, markets a bevy of gardening chemicals under the Ortho, Miracle-Gro and Scotts brands, as well as Roundup–which Monsanto manufactures but Scott exclusively sells in North America and much of Europe.
The company has engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to “educate consumers about the relation between responsible lawn care behaviors and water quality” and had pledged to remove phosphorous from its lawn maintenance products by the end of this year.* Scotts Miracle-Gro had also boasted about its hiring of Rich Shank, a former executive director of The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio chapter and had also served as director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Its commitment to “help people of all ages express themselves on their piece of the Earth” also shines within its corporate social responsibility portal, and beginning last year the company issued annual GRI-indexed sustainability reports.
But some employees at the Marysville, OH-based company did not carefully read the sustainability and public relations memos, and one of them now awaits sentencing for submitting false documentation to the EPA about the safety of some of the company’s lawn and gardening “consumer products.” CEO Jim Hagedorn insists the action of some of his employees does not reflect the company’s core values, and after Friday’s plea deal, announced his sentiments in a press release:
“As we reach closure on these issues, it’s important for all of our stakeholders to know that we have learned a lot from these events and that new people and processes have been put in place to prevent them from happening again. Our consumers are at the heart of our business, and I hope they’ll see our openness, cooperation, and acceptance of responsibility are all a part of our commitment to provide products they can trust and rely upon.”
How this episode affects this chemical company’s engagement with stakeholders on sustainability issues is unknown at the moment. What is clear, however, is that the company’s public relations budget has just expanded as Scotts Miracle-Gro tries to explain how it stumbled into its mess, and still tries to convince consumers that its products are a plus for home gardens and the environment.
Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo courtesy of Scotts Miracle-Gro.
*Quote is from one of many emails sent to the author last year by a public relations firm Scotts Miracle-Gro had engaged.