You may not have heard the term “greenwashing” before. I certainly hadn’t, until I was sitting in front of a manager from one of my favourite environmental charities, Cool Earth, and he began talking about the various companies who were doing it. I nodded knowingly, whilst simultaneously trying to Google the definition under the coffee-shop table.
It wasn’t my finest hour.
Greenwashing is defined by Wikipedia as “a form of spin in which a companies PR or marketing is deceptively used to promote the idea that an organisation’s products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.”
A great example of this can be seen in SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish – a film which everyone should watch – which clearly illustrates how the park puts profits before ethics, linking the deaths of 3 of it’s trainers to the psychological trauma that the park’s captured whales endure.
In response to falling profits in the wake of the film’s release, SeaWorld released reams of PR puff about the educational benefits of the park – and their plans to expand the living environments of the whales. (How does one learn about Orca’s – one of nature’s most incredible animals – whilst watching them balance things on their noses in tiny tanks, I wonder?)
Further attempts to come across as ‘green’ and ethical have included refillable soda cups throughout the park to offset carbon emissions (big deal) and an extremely controversial partnership with Bindi Irwin – daughter of the late, great legend that was Steve Irwin.
Okay, so what is “foodie greenwashing” then?
Apart from being a term which, to my knowledge I made up 5 minutes ago, it is the food industry’s version of the above.
You’ll have seen a lot of it probably without even noticing it. Those are the subtle instances , like calling things ‘farm fresh’ to make them sound more natural. Have you ever considered what this term actually means? Precisely nothing.
Another example is including pictures of rolling hills of green grass on the front of a carton of milk that has actually been produced from cows who’ve spent their entire lives in a shed.
Deceptive? Yep. Legal? Completely. Fair? I don’t think so.
The rise of the “hipster” – for want of a better word – has given this sort of stuff a new lease of life. As consumers, we can now be duped in to thinking we are buying higher quality, greener produce with labels like ‘artisinal’, ‘hand-made’ and even ‘local’. Cardiff blogger Meat Close to Home has been busy investigating what ‘local’ actually means and has discovered that it’s dishearteningly common to see a ‘local’ label on something that simply arrived at it’s final destination via a local supplier. Is that what consumers thought it meant when they parted with your cold hard cash?
Another trick that has also become popular in the restaurant trade is to use ‘reclaimed materials’ in the decorating, as a token gesture of green-ness – a stand alone action to plop in to a press release, but that’s it.
In other instances – the most infuriating ones – the ethical claims are so unsubstantiated that it’s actually laughable. Most followers of my blog will have read what I have to say about a certain city-centre burger joint by now, but they are by no means the only guilty party. At the launch event for one of Cardiff’s shiny chain of steak restaurants, a butcher doing a demonstration described “the more comfortable journey to slaughter and nicer, kinder welfare conditions” that animals under the Red Tractor food assurance label could enjoy – touting their beef as an ethical choice. In actual fact, the Red Tractor label has been identified as laying down the the lowest standards of any quality mark on the market; simply guaranteeing the UK minimum levels of animal welfare have been met. You can read more of the cold, hard facts in this article here.
How can we as consumers fight “foodie greenwashing”?
In almost every instance, “foodie green-washing” is only possible thanks to consumer ignorance.
- For a start, we can dig deeper than the marketing puff and stop taking things at face value. I don’t have access to a secret underground bunker of information about the places I write about or the foods I buy and eat – I just take the time to do a bit of research. Most businesses who are doing things well are pretty keen to shout about it, and should be able to answer your questions about their green policies and suppliers with ease – if not? There’s going to be a good reason.
- Secondly, we can campaign for clearer food labels. Check out Compassion in World Farming to see what they are doing to make this happen – they also have some really great, comprehensive guides to food labels and what they actually mean – a key tool for savvier shopping.
- Finally, we can call the imposters out. If the latest foodie pop-up is making a killing on the idea that it’s local and sustainable when it isn’t, send them a tweet and ask them why – and give the rest of us a heads-up too! Deliberately duping customers is just not fair.