A Look Into Greenwashing in the Food Industry

Updated: Oct 29, 2018

A look into the history of greenwashing in our food industry. For real world application and tips, scroll to the bottom!

Rarely are we fooled by the marketing claims of miracle pills and immediate cure-alls, yet we as consumers are still influenced by them: which is why companies spend millions of dollars on marketing every year. Manipulation of product marketing and packaging designed to insinuate healthier or more eco-friendly practices—also called greenwashing—is the most common issue plaguing the world of corporate social responsibility. There have been hundreds of lawsuits against companies for false advertising, and equal amounts of calls from the public for regulation reform. One positive, as the public screams for a change in corporate practice and pushes companies towards those that are more ethical and sustainable, is that companies seem to be listening. However, rather than making a real change in their company’s policies, many have grasped a hold of the power of branding, in order to appear more “green” to customers. They do this as an attempt to pacify the consumer without costing the shareholder profits. However, this is not simply a problem with big businesses, but an entire culture within the United States that thrives on deception, distraction, and willful ignorance.

Companies seem to be listening. However, rather than making a real change in their company's policies, many have grasped a hold of the power of branding.

What is Greenwashing?

The term “greenwashing” was coined by Jay Westerveld in 1986. While staying at a hotel, he read one of their feel good, save the world call to actions, that stated:

“Save Our Planet: Every day, millions of gallons of water are used to wash towels that have only been used once. You make the choice: A towel on the rack means, 'I will use again.' A towel on the floor means, 'Please replace.' Thank your for helping us conserve the Earth's vital resources.”

The full blooded tree hugging man that he was, he couldn’t let it go. He saw it for the marketing scheme it was, and was angered that the hotel—trying to shave its laundry bill—was claiming that it was saving the world. Though he coined the term greenwashing in an article he later posted attacking such commercialized statements, he was not the first to notice it in action. In the 1960’s, this same kind of manipulative marketing was called “ecopornography” by Jerry Mander. Since then, the problem has grown from far and between eco-friendly claims, to affecting approximately one fourth of the products in the 1990’s, to the 98% that it touches today

This tactic is most commonly understood about food. Many consumers know that food is laden with chemicals, hormones, and genetic modification; and many are willing to pay for organic or “all natural” foods over regular products. This is where greenwashing really rakes in money for big companies. Consider this example, from an article published in the Washington Post: in 2009, “U.S. Department of Agriculture employees determined that synthetic additives in organic baby formula violated federal standards and should be banned from a product carrying the federal organic label.” Within three years, those same additives—claiming to boost brainpower and vision—are found in 90% of organic baby formula. This “USDA Organic” label shifted from refusing any synthetic material with the help of lobbyists from powerful companies including Coca Cola, Kellogg, and Kraft-foods. These companies have a huge stake in the over $35 billion industry.

How Is This Legal?

Because of big companies lobbying politicians every few years, the law has been changed to say that labeling something “organic” does not necessarily mean that it is. In fact, by word choice, companies can skirt the law in attempts to deceive the consumers. If something is labeled “USDA Organic,” that means that 95% of the food is organic. The remaining 5% is chemicals, preservatives, and synthetic additives that have been allowed by the USDA. Lobbyists, every few years, have to convince politicians that there is no organic substitute for what they are adding to our foods. If they can do this, the substance is added to an “allowed” list and then can be put in organic food; a list that was intended to shrink over time, but only ever removed one of its nearly 300 substances. Unless a product is labeled and verified “100% Organic,” the only thing you can be sure of is that it includes synthetic additives.

By word choice, companies can skirt the law in attempts to deceive the consumers.

Though this form of greenwashing is a blatant deception, companies also use sly words tied with what they know of consumer assumptions to distract from the truth of what’s really going on. Look at eggs: you can buy white, brown, farm fresh, free range, vegetarian fed—but what do these labels mean? The multitude of choices makes consumers think that they are able to choose the best product: however, there is little to no difference between differently priced eggs. Cage-free, free-range or roaming, pasture-raised, and certified organic all mean that the bird is uncaged and able to walk and nest wherever they want to. What these labels don’t say is that outdoor access is not promised in cage-free eggs. These chickens are housed in huge warehouses, free to roam with hundreds of thousands of other birds. If they are allowed outside access, which is only guaranteed in pasture-raised chickens, it is often when the back door is opened for a few hours a day, and the birds are allowed roam in an undersized, fenced in area. When we hear these labels, we assume that birds are being treated better and therefore must produce better, healthier eggs. However, none of these labels place no restriction on beak cutting, starvation-based-forced molting, overcrowding, or hormone injections required to grow the birds to double their normal weight in a much quicker time.

The multitude of choices makes consumers think that they are able to choose the best product: however, there is little to no difference between differently priced eggs.

There are multiple other labels that have no added health benefit or moral implication. Feeding omnivorous chickens a vegetarian diet is not going to produce healthier eggs. Terms like natural, farm fresh, fertile, omega-3 enriched, or pasteurized are all terms with no actual health benefits—these labels are designed to insinuate a better product, and are used as reasons to increase the product price. The reasons for this are two-fold: on the one hand, the demand for food is so large that farmers believe they must operate this way in order to produce enough product. However, consumers want healthier options, and have begun to demand more humane practices. With a demand for healthier options, companies have found ways around losing profits—often without actually making a change. Though grocery labels have consistently been checked for their marketing deception, and over 99% have failed, most legal repercussions for deceptive marketing have fallen only to the fast food industry.

Legal Repercussions in Fast Food

In 2002, the same lawyers that attacked Big Tobacco teamed up with nutritionists to decide whether large fast food chains should be held responsible for their contribution to the national health epidemic. The tempting messages are without question encouraging overeating, but who’s fault is it? Kelly Brownwell of Yale’s Center for Eating and Weight Disorders stated, “People are exposed to a toxic food environment.” These arguments have run into difficulty in court, so lawyers have started looking toward marketing and advertising techniques. McDonald’s was successfully sued in 2000 because they advertised their french fries as vegetarian, though beef fat was used in their preparation. While many fast food chains, such as Burger King and Wendy’s, include nutrition information on their website, nutritionists claim that these caloric values mean nothing to the average American. Who knew that a quarter pounder, while not healthy, supplies over the daily amount of calories advised for the average women? McDonald’s has also come under fire for the use of toys to market unhealthy foods to young children.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest helped mother Monet Parham in filing a class action lawsuit aimed at “stopping McDonald’s use of toys to market directly to young children.” Parham’s daughter, Maya, asks to go to McDonald’s solely for the toys based on her favorite shows including i-Carly and Shrek. She claims that the food is beside the point, as the toy “monopolizes the attention” of her two children. Parham says, “...as other busy, working moms and dads know, we have to say ‘no’ to our young children so many times, and McDonald’s is making it so much harder.” In June, McDonald’s was warned by the CSPI that they would be sued if they did not stop this kind of marketing, but the warning was disregarded. According to many researchers, this kind of marketing should be regulated by the government, in the interest of the protection of children. Many studies have shown that McDonald’s and others who use such child-based marketing is exploiting families for profit. Due to their cognitive development, children are unable to understand the “persuasive intent of advertising,” and this commercial speech is “inherently misleading”—speech that is not protected by the First Amendment. Due to this, many are calling for reform and stating that the government can regulate advertising to children under the scope of constitutional protection. While these kinds of calls have been coming for years, there are still no major reforms—big businesses have continued their manipulative marketing, only to be called out by non-profits and the consumers.

In 2010, Coca Cola came under fire for their Vitaminwater brand. Simply the name insinuates that the product is made of vitamins and water; however, Vitaminwater is stuffed full of added sugars. Coca-Cola puts words like “revive” and “rejuvenate,” to insinuate health benefits. Litigation director of the case Steve Gardner says, “For too long, Coca-Cola has been exploiting American’s desire to eat and drink for health by deceiving them into thinking that Vitaminwater can actually prevent disease.” Coca Cola’s claims that sugar disclosure on nutrition labels prevents misleading the consumers were also rejected by the judge, who deemed that “reasonable consumers” could not be expected to read their nutrition labels. Coca-Cola has also been sued over its Enviga green-tea-flavored soft drinks that promote “negative calories.”

The problem with these lawsuits is that there are too many products, services, and companies that are greenwashed: there is no way one or two non-profits can take down major corporations with seemingly endless pockets. Commercial free speech has become a major issue that has not always had protection. In the 1970’s, the Supreme Court first outlined what forms of free speech should or should not be regulated by the government. For example, POM Wonderful markets their pomegranate juice as extremely healthy and even preventative of some diseases. According to FDA rules, this off-label marketing would be illegal for prescription drugs. They went so far as to sue to the company Allergen for it’s off-label marketing, calling it illegal and “misleading.” However, if POM can successfully argue that they are only marketing a juice, not a drug, their marketing is legal. There are clear problems in the legislation involved with advertising and marketing—everything seems to be, at best, a little foggy. The real question is, who is responsible? Are these lawsuits going to effect change, or do we need government regulation to really make a difference? Do we, as consumers, really believe the myriad of health claims anyway? It appears that whether we do or not, that marketing has still worked. This confusing, loophole filled system is all a part of the scheme—and it isn’t the only one.

There are clear problems in the legislation involved with advertising and marketing—everything seems to be, at best, a little foggy

The growing business of deception is a problem that is not easily solvable. It is not simply a problem that can be rectified by a change in regulation. The government is responsible for the protection of those who cannot protect themselves—this means requiring transparent business practices and honest marketing. They should hold businesses responsible for their manipulation and deception, and not allow lobbyists to trick consumers with word-play. But what about consumer responsibility?

Willful ignorance has developed where consumers desire a change in corporate practices, yet are unwilling or unable to see all the problems that go into the products that they purchase every day.

How Do We Make A Change?

Regulation reform cannot act alone if consumers do not sacrifice some convenience and money in order to create social change. The rare consumers and non-profits that are really calling for change cannot do it alone. In order for social change to really happen, the entire culture needs to step up and make an effort.

  • Parents have to say no to protect their children, no matter how difficult.

  • Consumers need to vote with their dollars: stop purchasing products that are unsustainable, unhealthy, and destructive.

  • Take the time to read labels and make small changes, they add up over time.

  • Opt for whole fruits and vegetables, farmers markets, and locally grown produce: they have less additives and are seasonal (meaning no chemical ripening)


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