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Planting trees without leaving home: tobacco company direct-to-consumer CSR efforts
  1. Mariaelena Gonzalez,
  2. Pamela M Ling,
  3. Stanton A Glantz
  1. Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, University of California, San Francisco, California, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Mariaelena Gonzalez, Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education, UCSF, 530 Parnassus Ave. Box 1390, San Francisco, CA 94143-1390, USA; mariaelena.gonzalez{at}ucsf.edu

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In developing countries tobacco and cigarette production involves the diversion of arable land from food to tobacco production. It also involves child labour (despite tobacco companies' corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns against the use of child labour in tobacco growing fields), heavy pesticide use (often bought from tobacco companies on loan) and deforestation.1–7 Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (SFNTC) is a wholly owned subsidiary of Reynolds American Inc. (Winston-Salem, NC, USA), which is, in turn, 42% owned by British American Tobacco (BAT). Tobacco companies, BAT in particular, have a long history of using CSR to support lobbying activities, to repair their reputation and to turn non-tobacco non-governmental organisations into allies.3 4 8–17 RJ Reynolds also engages in environmental sustainability projects as part of Reynolds American Inc.18 Previously, BAT worked with non-governmental organisations such as Earthwatch to portray BAT as socially responsible.19 As part of its CSR activities, BAT engages in reforestation projects in many tobacco growing countries. However, these efforts are often used to replace trees lost as fuel for the flue-curing process (and thus serve to ensure that fuel is available at a later time point).7

SFNTC is using reforestation programmes as a promotional activity. SFNTC produces American Spirit cigarettes, a premium brand with an ‘environmental friendly’ and ‘natural tobacco’ image.20 In 2011 SFNTC used direct-to-consumer advertising to reinforce its eco-friendly image.

In the past, SFNTC embedded wildflower seeds in birthday cards sent to consumers on its direct mail lists.21 In 2011, SFNTC mailed out birthday cards (figure 1) which read, ‘We know how important the environment is to you. Instead of planting a seeded card, we want you to go global. This year, plant a tree in one of the many reforestation projects throughout the world.’22 Consumers ‘plant’ trees by redeeming a code and choosing which country they wish their tree planted in. They can also obtain environmental information (such as a carbon calculator) and information about reforestation projects.

Figure 1

Front and one of the inside inscriptions of a birthday card received from the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company (a full copy of the birthday card has been sent to Trinkets and Trash) and copy of the leading page (http://www.seed-the-future.com/SFNTC).

The website http://www.seed-the-future.com/ is run by the company FarFromBoring, which markets promotional items.23 FarFromBoring created the Seed the Future campaign that allows clients to ‘leverage your brand in an eco-friendly way’ and enhance your company's brand image by demonstrating your environmental awareness’24 through ‘tree cards’ (figure 2). Web searches revealed that organisations such as Stanford University and London Towncars have used these ‘tree cards’. A cached version of the Seed the Future website stated that ‘All Seed The Future projects support Trees for the Future’25 (a non-profit organisation); however, a call to FarFromBoring revealed that, because many tree planting organisations focus on one area of the world, net revenues (after their costs and profit) are given to several organisations that planted trees in the US and elsewhere. (We could not discover the exact organisational names.) Because the Seed The Future website does not have a privacy policy and each tree card contains a unique code, it would be easy for SFNTC to track which consumers redeem these gifts.

Figure 2

Outline of the relationship between FarFromBoring, tree cards and the way in which tree cards are redeemed.

In 2011, Phillip Morris also offered an eco-friendly promotion using the Marlboro website, which included charting the company's environmental activities, offering conservation tips, and allowing customers the opportunity to have Marlboro donate $5 to a conservation agency on their behalf and to enter an environmental project-themed sweepstakes. While Marlboro did not name who they were going to give the money to, on the website, placed directly below the offer to donate money, customers are invited to ‘learn more’ about three conservation agencies: Keep America Beautiful, American Land Conservancy and American Rivers.26

While in the past BAT has used CSR, such as the reforestation projects, to target policy elites, tobacco growers and consumers,17 the low cost of activities such as ‘tree cards’ (100 000 cards cost $0.66 each plus additional costs for a custom ‘landing’ webpage)27 or email and web promotions like sweepstakes suggests that in the future corporations may direct more CSR efforts at consumers on their direct mail list using third parties.

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Footnotes

  • Funding This work was supported by the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health (grants CA-113710, CA-87472) and the California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program (20FT-0077).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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