The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a major player in the environmentalist movement, focusing on issues related to regulating chemicals, promoting organic food, and opposing modern agricultural practices. EWG aggressively opposes the use of certain common plastics and farming techniques and has reportedly aligned with trial attorneys involved in major class-action cases.
EWG has a long association with Tides Foundation founder and left-wing philanthropist Drummond Pike, who sits on EWG’s board of directors. Environmental Working Group began as a project of the Center for Resource Economics/Island Press, but was later taken under the wing of the Tides Foundation itself. EWG receives substantial funding from progressive foundations including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the JPB Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Environmental Working Group has faced substantial criticism for its sloppy scientific methods and exaggerations of toxicological risks. A scientific study of pesticide levels in fruits and vegetables targeted as a “dirty dozen” by EWG found the Group’s methodology “lacks scientific credibility.” Additionally, a survey of members of the professional association of toxicologists found that most who expressed an opinion on EWG believed it overstated chemical risks.
EWG published a report calling into question the safety of vaccines in the mid-2000s. The group has entertained the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism, which has been debunked by legitimate medical authorities.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) was founded in the late 1980s as a project of the Center for Resource Economics/Island Press, a publisher of environmentalist books. Drummond Pike, a co-founder of the progressive Tides Foundation, was involved in EWG from its foundation. From 1993 to 1999, EWG operated under the aegis of Pike’s Tides Foundation and Tides Center.
After Tides spun off EWG, it was run by former aide to former Massachusetts Governor and 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis Kenneth Cook. Cook has continued to lead EWG as president ever since.
EWG has focused its efforts principally into chemicals policy and organic food activism. The organization advocates against the use of common household products that use Teflon and other manmade materials.
The group is deeply involved in the movement to advance organic food. In 2014, EWG partnered with the organic food trade group Organic Voices to host and operate the Organic Voices Action Fund. The Action Fund led the campaign “Just Label It,” which advocated for mandatory labels on non-organic foods declaring the presence of genetically engineered ingredients. Scott Faber, the senior vice president for government affairs of EWG, served as executive director of Organic Voices Action Fund and the Just Label It campaign.
Mainstream scientists have criticized Environmental Working Group for some of its campaigns. A poll of experts in toxicology—the study of the effects of potentially damaging chemicals—found that those familiar with EWG believe it overstates the risks of chemical uses. In numerous areas, scientific authorities have taken stances opposite those of EWG or criticized EWG’s actions.
Environmental Working Group was certainly willing to entertain the widely debunked view, most prominently espoused by disbarred British ex-physician and alleged fraudster Andrew Wakefield, that vaccines produced before 1999 caused autism. In 2004, EWG published a report titled “Overloaded” that explored an alleged link between vaccines and autism and attacked the Institute of Medicine for concluding that no such link exists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention categorically rejects the claim EWG entertained, asserting, “There is no link between vaccines and autism.”
“Dirty Dozen” Produce Reports
Each year, EWG releases a report based on U.S. Department of Agriculture testing results on the twelve fruits or vegetables with the highest pesticide residues; EWG presents the results as a reason to switch to organic food.
However, reputable scientific examination of EWG’s hyperbolic claims has found them scientifically lacking. A scientific study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology found the Group’s methodology “lacks scientific credibility.” The same study additionally concluded that “substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks,” refuting EWG’s pro-organic implication.
Others have criticized EWG’s emphasis on pesticides as out of proportion to the benefits of eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Science writer James McWilliams criticized EWG’s report, noting that EWG itself wrote, “[…] the EWG’s shopping guide is not built on a complex assessment of pesticide risks.”
Genetically Modified Foods
Environmental Working Group is one of the leading pressure groups opposing modern agricultural practices including the use of gene technology to improve crop performance. This aligns with EWG’s close ties to the organic food industry, as organic food cannot use these technologies.
EWG’s ties to the organic food industry are substantial. One of the anti-genetic-technology movement’s most prominent recent campaigns, “Just Label It,” is run by Scott Faber, Vice President for Government Affairs at Environmental Working Group. Just Label It is a project of Organic Voices Action Fund, which has EWG president Ken Cook and several organic food company executives on its board. Organic company Stonyfield Farm reportedly contributed at least $100,000 to Organic Voices Action Fund.
Environmental Working Group’s opposition to gene technology in food production is not shared by scientific authorities. While EWG claims the safety of these technologies is not proven, the National Academy of Sciences has found no difference in safety between ordinary foods and those produced using these technologies.
Environmental Working Group does not fully disclose its donors. The organization provides a partial breakdown of its support on its website with a list of some foundation supporters and a pie chart showing support from individuals, foundations, and corporations and revenue from consulting and investments.
EWG receives substantial support from foundations, including donor-advised funds. Tax records show that in 2014, roughly $5 million of EWG’s $10 million in revenues came from foundations. Notable progressive foundations that have contributed to EWG include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Marisla Foundation, the Popplestone Foundation, and the JPB Foundation. The JPB Foundation is notable for its association with a major beneficiary of the frauds perpetrated by disgraced securities trader Bernie Madoff.
Other foundation contributions to EWG pass through donor-advised funds, vehicles that donors may use to preserve their anonymity. In recent years, the donor-advised funds Foundation for the Carolinas and Silicon Valley Community Foundation have made substantial contributions to EWG.
Ken Cook is the founder and president of Environmental Working Group. Before joining EWG and its predecessor organizations, Cook was a Democratic Party political aide who worked for the presidential campaign of Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. He has served as EWG’s president since the organization separated from Island Press in the early 1990s. In addition to leading a prominent environmentalist group, Cook is married into environmentalist politics: His wife, Deb Callahan, formerly headed the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and was a campaign aide to former Vice President Al Gore.
Scott Faber is EWG’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs. Faber has lobbied for environmentalist groups American Rivers and Environmental Defense Fund before taking a lobbying position with the Grocery Manufacturers Association. He currently serves as President and CEO of Organic Voices Action Fund (OVAF) in addition to his position with EWG. In 2014, EWG and OVAF reported paying Faber a combined $259,191 in salary plus $22,466 in compensation.
EWG’s board of directors includes numerous progressive activists, an organic foods executive, and two daytime-television doctors. Among the members are Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike, physician Mark Hyman, and CEO of progressive petition website Care2 Randy Paynter. Hyman is notable for serving as personal physician to the family of former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and embracing scientifically dubious “functional medicine.”