Dept. of Guilty Giving: Why Carnival's Latest Marine Grant Is Too Little, Too Late

Cruises are often advertised as luxurious escapes from the monotony of everyday life. These drifting, all-inclusive, island-hotel hybrids boast endless entertainment, fine dining, adventure, relaxation, and a journey replete with natural beauty and postcard-worthy vistas. What they never tell you, of course, is just how brutal the cruise industry is on our oceans.

Some cruise lines are more environmentally conscious than others. Carnival Cruise Lines isn't one of them. Quite apart from its dismal overall environmental record (more on that in a moment), a Carnival ship last year severely damaged a patch of pristine coral reef in the Cayman Islands. 

So when the cruise line—through its philanthropic arm, the Carnival Foundation—recently announced a $75,000 donation to the Cayman Islands-based Central Caribbean Marine Institute toward restoration of an ecologically distinct and globally endangered coral species, we couldn’t help but roll our eyes and contemplate guilt-based philanthropy.

More than 20 million people will have set sail on a cruise this year. With demand higher than ever, cruise lines are proving the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, raking in over $36 billion annually. Among them, Carnival has the largest fleet, with 24 vessels currently in operation that account for 21.1 percent of the worldwide market share. And that growth has come with consequences. According to the Guardian:

Every year the cruise line industry consumes millions of tons of fuel and produces almost a billion tons of sewage. If insufficiently treated, exhaust and sewage from ships can fog the air and pollute the water, potentially causing a host of ugly environmental and health effects that undermine the very natural beauty that cruise ships advertise to potential travelers.

As a corporation, Carnival is known for its poor record of environmental stewardship; meanwhile, its foundation is a curious outfit. We’ve noted Carnival’s thin environmental giving portfolio in the past, finding it more than a little bit odd that the foundation has all but completely ignored marine conservation, preferring instead to funds arts, education and health initiatives. But last year, bowing to pressure from concerned customers and environmental groups, Carnival signaled that it would turn a new leaf, prioritizing conservation and giving back to the waters and coastlines its practices have helped ravage. A $2.5 million grant to the Nature Conservancy for global marine protection work seemed like a good start.

Related: Carnival Tries Make Amends With a Big Gift to the Nature Conservancy

Meanwhile, the company's overall environmental record remains pretty dismal. In fact, according to environmental organization and cruise line watchdog Friends of the Earth (FOE), the major cruise liner and most of its counterparts actually did a worse job of protecting the oceans in 2014 than in previous years.

Every year the FOE releases an annual report card that rates major cruise lines on their commitments to air pollution reduction, sewage treatment and water quality. The 2014 Cruise Ship Report Card graded Carnival a “D”, down from last year’s “C.” In all fairness to Carnival, the highest rating was a “C+”, which went to Disney Cruise Line. (Earlier this fall, Carnival pledged to do a better job on sustainability.) The report card also revealed that more than 40 percent of the 167 active cruise ships still rely on outdated waste treatment technology that leaves harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants in the water.

As a cruise vacationer, you may have thought to yourself, “What a neat floating casino.” What you probably haven’t thought is, “What a lousy floating waste treatment plant.”

Still, you’ve more than likely heard a horror story or two about a cruise gone wrong, thanks to a faulty sewage system. And while being stranded on the ocean with 3,000 other people and nowhere for the waste to go does sound like a special kind of hell, consider the fact that all of that waste is regularly dumped in the ocean.

That’s right. By law, wastewater dumped within 12 nautical miles of shore must be treated, but beyond that, ships are allowed to dump raw sewage directly into the ocean. The same ocean your seafood dinner was fished out of.

Unsurprisingly, Carnival is spinning its latest grant as a win for both conservation and education. According to Carnival, the research findings will be incorporated into Little Cayman Research Centre’s Cayman Ocean Science Academy for a program to engage 200 local school children in activities aimed at improving coral reef conservation in the Cayman Islands. Earlier this year, Carnival had pledged $100,000 to the Cayman Islands National Trust to support reef restoration work. 

They say every little bit helps. They say beggars can’t be choosers. They say a lot of things that all lead to the same conclusion: Take what you can get. But philanthropy born out of guilt can seem tainted—and crumbs of philanthropy for marine conservation from a $10 billion company that is damaging oceans in the grossest way possible is not just unimpressive, it’s infuriating.

One final note: Last year, Carnival and its counterparts announced that the industry as a whole would no longer release its environmental or sustainability data to FOE—essentially dismantling the report card program and the industry’s key framework for environmental accountability. The question becomes whether or not, in the absence of accountability, guilt is a strong enough motivator to continue to drive funding. 

We won't hold our breath. 

Related: Corporate Giving Hall of Shame: Chump Change to Save Butterflies Killed Off for Profit