Don't Be Fooled: America's Ten Worst Greenwashers
More than a decade ago, on Earth Day 1990, millions of people joined together around the country to protest the rapidly declining health of our planet, forcing corporations to realize that even the average Joe had started to take an interest in the well-being of the environment.
Predictably, the level of "greenwashing" has spiked sharply since that eventful Earth Day. Greenwashing is what corporations do when they try to make themselves look more environmentally friendly than they really are.
Arguably, the greenwashers get away with it more often than not. But their deceptions do not go entirely unnoticed. Every year for the past decade, the watchdog group Earth Day Resources for Living Green has released a report called "Don't Be Fooled." The report calls attention to the year's 10 worst greenwashers, the 10 companies that have made the most misleading claims about the environmental benefits of their products and industries. This year, EcoPledge.com, a coalition of environmental organizations that uses boycotts to put pressure on environment-abusing companies, has joined Earth Day Resources in putting out the report.
"Don't Be Fooled" accuses corporations of deceiving consumers with false claims of environmental responsibility and all-natural wholesomeness. Not only does the report focus on deceptive claims made by corporations, it also highlights specific sins, falling into two main categories: producing genetically engineered foods and polluting the environment.
-- Kraft's Post Selects Cereals, for falsely promoting its cereals as having "natural ingredients" when, in fact, the corn used in the cereal is genetically engineered -- made in a lab, not by nature.
-- The Council for Biotechnology Information, for promoting genetically engineered foods and even preaching to children -- through books aimed at kids -- about the benefits of biotechnology without disclosing any of the risks to human health or the environment.
-- Tyson Chicken, for promoting its products as "all natural," even though the company treats its chickens with antibiotics.
-- The Audubon Nature Institute -- not to be confused with the National Audubon Society -- for falsely claiming to support the protection of natural habitats as a way to preserve animal species, while also belonging to the National Wetlands Coalition, which lobbies to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. The National Wetlands Coalition is made up of such corporate giants as the American Mining Congress, Chevron, Exxon and the National Association of Homebuilders.
-- Comanche Trace, a commercial developer, for false advertising. Comanche Trace bills its golf courses as "great habitats," even though golf courses deplete natural habitats and use pesticides that poison groundwater.
-- Clairol, for false advertising. The company claims to offer a "truly organic experience" with its Herbal Essences line of shampoos but, according to the report, uses chemicals such as sodium lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol and D&C red no. 33, which are not organic. (The report notes that Clairol does use some organic ingredients, does not test on animals and uses 25 percent post-consumer recycled plastic in its bottles.)
-- American Electric Power, for falsely advertising itself as environmentally friendly and concerned about animal habitats, even though it is a major polluter. Its harmful emissions contribute to air pollution, acid rain, global warming and mercury poisoning, according to the report.
-- Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, for falsely promoting coal as a "clean fuel," even though carbon dioxide, one of the byproducts of coal burning, is the primary greenhouse gas responsible for global warning. Continued global warming will result in rising temperatures, rising sea levels, increased rates of diseases such as malaria and continued water pollution.
(In a recent interview with the Advocate, Joe Lucas, ABEC's vice president of communications, said carbon dioxide -- also the gas that humans breathe out -- isn't a contributor to global warming because if it were, he rationalized, "the government would have to ask us all to stop breathing.")
-- General Motors, for falsely promoting its cars as environmentally friendly, with ads that place GM SUVs in natural habitats as if they were as natural as the birds. In fact, SUVs get very few miles to the gallon and are far more harmful to the environment than most other automobiles. General Motors is a member of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, an organization that opposes clean air legislation and laws directed at reducing auto emissions.
-- ExxonMobil, for falsely advertising that the air we breathe is getting better, not worse. Along with the rest of the oil and gas industry, ExxonMobil helped to kill the Kyoto Protocol, an international initiative that called for tougher emissions standards.
An Uphill Battle
Earth Day Resources' reporting is persuasive because its claims are both well-supported with evidence and concisely stated. The "Don't Be Fooled" report contains information that is most often frightening and at times even comical.
Yet, despite being readable and informative, the report is likely to get short shrift from the media. Perhaps it goes without saying that, unless the media broadcast the report, politicians will continue to ignore its warnings. Whether or not the report has any pronounced effect on the level of greenwashing that goes on every day ultimately depends on the American consumer -- a consumer who, so far, appears largely ignorant of, or unconcerned by, the deceptions being regularly perpetrated by big business.
One of the most compelling examples of the misinformation being doled out to consumers is the work of the Council for Biotechnology Information.
Sticking Fish Head Onto a Monkey
Biotechnology -- basically, the manipulation of DNA -- is a relatively new agricultural innovation, yet the practice has already become pervasive. The Council for Biotechnology Information is a "coalition formed by the leading biotech companies to educate people" about the benefits of biotechnology, according to the Council's executive director, Linda Thraine. The company put out a children's activity book in 2001 touting advances in bioengineering -- without, asserts the "Don't Be Fooled" report, explaining any of the risks.
According to the report, 60 to 70 percent of processed foods marketed in the United States contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but because the FDA does not require these foods to be safety-tested before being released into the market, it's difficult to know what long-term effects these new ingredients will have on human health.
Scientists have found that genetically engineered crops can also pose a threat to the environment. Crops can be engineered to be toxic to certain pests, such as the corn borers that feed on corn crops, but often are also lethal to beneficial insects, like the lacewings that eat the corn borers.
Thraine was quick to dismiss these accusations. "The products that are now on the market, like corn and cotton, have been extensively tested ... Obviously, when we develop a product for human consumption, our primary concern is safety," she said in an interview with the Advocate.
The benefits of genetic engineering are incalculable, asserted Thraine. "The one thing that people lose sight of is that there is chronic hunger in the world. Biotech has a great role to play. It can help farmers to harvest more of what they plant," she said. After all, she added, "agriculture is a building block to overall economic growth."
Thraine claimed that genetic engineering is not only revolutionary but safe as well. It's not so different from what Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, did in the 1800s, said Thraine: "[Genetic engineering] is similar to the age-old technology of crossbreeding ... It's not like sticking a fish head onto a monkey."
But that is exactly what it's like, according to the "Don't Be Fooled" report. Traditional crossbreeding of the Mendelian variety requires plants that are similar enough to cross-pollinate. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, involves splicing together the DNA of species that could not possibly crossbreed in nature. For example, says the report, genes -- the building blocks of DNA -- from a fish have been inserted into the DNA of strawberries and tomatoes in the hopes that these genetically engineered fruits would be better able to survive frosts.
It would be naïve to dismiss the great potential within the field of genetic engineering. However, given the probable risks, only the greedy or the foolish would advocate continuing -- when the health of entire populations is at risk -- without first rigorously safety testing over an extended period of time these new "Frankenfood" creations. So the questions beg to be asked: Why doesn't the Food and Drug Administration safety-test genetically engineered foods, and why doesn't it require companies to label foods as "genetically modified"?
Carrie Ainsworth-Wright, a spokesperson for the FDA, declined to answer those direct questions. "The answer isn't cut and dry; it's nothing I can boil down into a pat statement," she said, adding that the answers might be found on the FDA's website.
There are some very pat answers available on the FDA's website. In an article addressing the safety of bioengineered foods, former FDA Commissioner Jane E. Henney gave a simple, but remarkably inane, explanation:
"DNA already is present in all foods and is presumed to be [safe] ... [A]dding a bit of DNA does not raise any food safety issues."
Henney's understanding of genetics is wildly unscientific. Yes, there is DNA in all foods. But there is a huge difference between eating a tomato with fish and eating a tomato that has been genetically manipulated to include fish DNA -- effectively mutating the tomato. In fact, even a slight mutation in human DNA can cause a host of diseases such as cystic fibrosis, Parkinson's disease and Down's syndrome.
One particularly insidious example of the kind of risky biotechnology that the Council for Biotechnology Information promotes is rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone, a synthetic hormone created by the Monsanto chemical company that stimulates milk production in cows, increasing production by up to 30 percent. Cows injected with rBGH are at an increased risk for mastitis, an udder infection that cows producing more milk are more susceptible to. The use of rBGH has also been associated with increases in somatic cell counts, or pus, in the milk that the cows produce. Simply put, along with the extra milk, cows treated with the hormone also squirt out greater levels of antibiotics, (which is used to treat the mastitis), pus, and bacteria, which feed on the pus. Milk from cows treated with rBGH also contains higher levels of IGF-I, a hormone that is linked to breast and prostate cancer in humans.
Although Monsanto denies that there are risks associated with the growth hormone, rBGH was banned by Canada in 1999 and has been banned by the European Union since 1994. The United Nations food standards body has also refused to certify that rBGH is safe, according to Robert Cohen, a former member of that group. However, rBGH is legal here in the U.S., and unless a milk carton is specifically labeled "rBGH free," at least some of the milk inside was produced using the growth hormone.
If the international community continues to be wary of rBGH and the health risks associated with its use, why isn't the U.S. government similarly concerned?
Maybe it has to do with the fact that, from 1997 to 1999, Monsanto spent $4 million a year lobbying the government.
The U.S. government has different agencies to protect its citizens from different threats. The EPA is supposed to protect the air, earth and water. The FDA is supposed to protect us from dangerous foods and drugs. But whom are these organizations really serving?
A whopping two-thirds of the food products marketed in the U.S. contain bioengineered ingredients that have not been safety tested by the FDA. At the same time that the government has given the agriculture industry a free pass on bioengineered ingredients, the industry has been pouring money into political campaigns and spending millions on lobbying efforts -- more than $77 million in 2000.
That same year, electric utilities and oil and gas corporations spent $128 million lobbying for deregulation, which would enable them to release greater levels of noxious gases into the air. Almost all the utility companies opposed the Clinton administration's proposal that would have required utility companies to produce at least 7.5 percent of electricity using renewable resources by 2010.
In 2000, the automobile industry spent well over $36 million on lobbying. Along with the utilities and the oil companies, the automakers succeeded in convincing George W. Bush to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, through which the U.S. had committed itself to stricter emissions standards.
Unfortunately, green organizations committed to protecting the environment and to creating more stringent food safety regulations do not command the financial resources that corporations do, so making their cases becomes difficult. Many of these green groups are grassroots organizations made up mostly of volunteers. Their task can be monumental when corporations such as General Motors spend millions convincing consumers that their SUVs -- some of which only get 13 miles to the gallon -- are environmentally friendly.
Reports such as "Don't Be Fooled," and the work of groups like Earth Day Resources and EcoPledge.com in general, may appear to be small weapons against the vast arsenals that corporations wield, particularly when the government isn't doing its job. However, the fact that corporations recognize that American consumers are actively searching out green alternatives shows that consumers are not powerless. In fact, consumers hold all the money that corporations can ever hope to lay their hands on. Consumers have the power of the purchase.
As Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and a social activist, puts it in her globalization primer and action guide, "Take It Personally: How to Make Conscious Choices to Change the World:" "Don't underestimate the power of the vigilante consumer."
Shireen Deen is a writer for the Valley Advocate.