Don't Be Fooled by Corporate Greenwashing

Altria adCorporations employ legions of marketing and advertising professionals to help them exploit trends and separate people from their disposable income. So it’s nice to know that there are groups like Boston’s Earthday Resources for Living Green out there working on behalf of the consumer.

If you’re not particularly concerned about where your money goes, then April 22, 1970 probably changed nothing for you. But for the growing number of environmentally conscious consumers in the world, that date -- the first ever Earth Day -- was a grand celebration of their commitment to the idea that the Earth is a sacred being in desperate need of our protection. Unfortunately, as it turns out, it was also a signal to corporate America that "green" consumers were a major niche market.

For the past eleven years, Earthday Resources has issued its Don’t Be Fooled Awards to the top ten "greenwashers" of the previous year. Greenwashing is defined as "disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image." Not surprisingly, there are a number of organizations out there who have devised specious advertising campaigns to try and cash in on the more than $540 billion global market for products and services with low environmental impact.

The Don’t Be Fooled 2003 report does not consist solely of finger-pointing. There are also valuable tips for consumers attempting to evaluate the claims made in advertising and on the packaging materials for products they are considering buying. Based on the standards adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2002, the report dissects what it actually means to be "100% Organic" versus simply "Organic." Other tips include detailed breakdowns of the "Recycled," "Recyclable," "Degradable," "Eco Safe/Earth Smart," "Ozone Friendly," and "Reduced Materials" labels.

And the winners of this year’s Don’t Be Fooled Awards are ...

Altria Group, Inc.Altria Group, Inc.
The parent company of Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro brand cigarettes, would seemingly be a shoe-in for the award. And they are. But it isn’t so much the aggressiveness tobacco companies like Philip Morris have displayed in protecting their right to push tobacco on a new generation of consumers (the members of older generations seem to die at an alarming rate) that has garnered Altria a spot in this year’s awards. Rather, Earthday Resources seems to have recognized Altria due to its Kraft Foods unit, along with a public image campaign that made frequent use of brilliantly leafy trees, and other images of nature.

But what’s wrong with Kraft? According to the report, "Kraft is the largest food company in the U.S. and its use of genetically engineered ingredients contributes significantly to the problems resulting from these crops." Problems from genetically modified (GM) crops include a number of health and environmental risks, like unforeseen allergic reactions in some people who eat GM foods, and the frightening ability of GM crops to proliferate themselves -- even into carefully sequestered fields of non-GM crops!

Altria ads should have shown hideously deformed "Franken-trees" instead. Think about that the next time you go out of your way to eat organic food instead of Taco Bell taco shells, Post cereals, Boca Burgers, or Jell-O pudding.

ExxonMobilExxon Mobil
Now a company that specializes in the exploration- and production-side of the oil and gas business may seem like an obvious choice. But Exxon Mobil has contributed $100 million to the Global Climate and Energy Project, which seeks to develop clean energy technologies and ways to minimize greenhouse gases produced by the use of traditional fuels. So why do they deserve top greenwashing honors?

For one thing, Exxon Mobil executives have made disparaging remarks about the project in the past, leading some to believe the company isn’t really committed to the search for clean energy. What’s more, during the ten years which Exxon Mobil will be funneling $100 million into the Global Climate and Energy Project, it also plans to spend $100 billion on oil exploration!

Those numbers speak for themselves. Exxon Mobil has earned its award, and it’s looking good for them in 2004, 2005, 2006 … Hell, all the way to 2013 ...

J.D. Irving, Limited
What is this green-certified gas station, oil refinery, and foresting operations owner doing on the list? Well, according to a report written for the Maine Sierra Club, it turns out that Irving’s green certification was based on promises it made to Science Certification Systems to comply with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), not the company’s actual practices.

What it all boils down to is that The Home Depot won’t buy wood products from non-FSC-compliant sources because that is what The Home Depot’s customers overwhelmingly demanded. So Irving sells its products to people who trust that The Home Depot has ensured it was harvested in a sustainable manner. However, Irving’s Maine Holdings unit has a record of replanting Maine’s forests with non-native species, and has one of the highest clear-cutting rates and one of the highest herbicide use rates in Maine. There’s nothing certified "green" about that.

Cargill Dow LLC
Cargill Dow’s new "Nature Works" packaging alternative is being hailed as a major step towards a sustainable future. Problem is, the company is doing all the hailing itself. This new polylactide (PLA) is made using 20 to 50 percent less fossil fuels than petroleum-based plastics, and can supposedly be recycled in commercial compost facilities. Cargill Dow plans to make clothes, carpet, furniture, and plastic bags and cases from "Nature Works."

The corn used to make "Nature Works," however, is genetically engineered (GE). "The use of GE seeds results in the use of more herbicides since plants are modified to tolerate otherwise lethal doses in order to kill predators but save plants," which poses a serious threat to food and water sources, as well as wildlife, according to the "Don’t Be Fooled 2003" report.

Maybe people won’t mind depleting food sources, since that can only help them fit into their sleek, new, flare-bottom "Nature Works" jeans. Who’s to say?

Simply OrangeSimply Orange
What self-respecting nature lover doesn’t love to wake up with a tall glass of orange juice, rich in vitamin C and delicious. It’s nature’s perfect pick-me-up. Simply Orange seems to have a winning formula on its hands, too. The ads for the juice say "Do not concentrate. Do not sweeten. Do not disturb nature at work."

So how does Simply Orange reconcile that manifesto with its own use of pesticides? As the "Don’t Be Fooled 2003" report says, "Simply Orange may not concentrate and they may not sweeten, but they definitely do use pesticides and they are disturbing nature."

I can't imagine slugging down a glass of orange juice and stepping outside for a breath of poison-laced air is what any nature lover has in mind.

Southern CompanySouthern Company
Some of the companies receiving "Don’t Be Fooled" awards probably did have good intentions from the beginning, and simply used ad campaigns to cover up the fact that their products represent failed attempts to find means for acting upon those intentions. Not so with Southern Company.

Ads published by Southern Company in the U.S. Southeast and in Washington D.C. (most notably in a newspaper read by members of Congress and the advocacy community) proudly displayed graphs that charted the drastic 40 to 45 percent decline in emissions at the company’s plants. The ad doesn’t specify if the pollutants being charted are nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), or carbon dioxide (CO2), and for good reason: From 1990 to January 2003, the time frame of the graph, CO2 emissions actually increased!

And that’s not the only misleading or erroneous claim made by the ads. When all three pollutants are measured together, emissions at Southern Company’s plants totaled roughly 128 million tons in 1990 and roughly 170 million tons in 2000, a 33 percent increase. "In fact," the Don't Be Fooled report says, "there is no single pollutant or combination of pollutants that was reduced by 40 to 45 percent during that time period."

Perhaps greenwashing is not a strong enough word for Southern Company. A polluter like this doesn’t deserve the word "green" to be associated with them in any way. I would go with "dirty liars." It’s elegant in its simplicity.

Sustainable Forestry InitiativeSustainable Forestry Initiative
Ah, the wonders of clever branding. Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a new certification system to ensure consumers that the products they’re buying are sustainably harvested. And with a name like that, who could doubt that they can buy SFI-certified products with a clear conscious? Problem is, SFI is a program of the American Forest and Paper Association (AFPA), the national trade association for the forest, pulp, paper, paperboard, and wood products industry!

This means, essentially, that it is a new certification program governed -- at least in part -- by the very companies seeking its certification, companies that have a vested interest in maintaining their current business practices. Boise Cascade and Weyerhauser are a couple of the companies considered to be SFI-compliant, yet they have long-standing reputations for logging old-growth forests and polluting the air and water.

New England OrganicsNew England Organics
Stop a moment and ask yourself: What would a company called New England Organics sell? Produce? Certifiably organic, microwaveable meals? Maybe even sustainably harvested lumber? Whatever your guess, you’re wrong.

New England Organics sells sludge. Not just any sludge: They sell the byproduct of the wastewater treatment process, which can contain measurable amounts of mercury, lead, and other toxic chemicals. In fact, food produced with New England Organics’ sludge can’t even be labeled as organic according to USDA standards.

Using the euphemism "bio-solids" to refer to the semi-solid sludge they broker, New England Organics sells the sludge to farmers, which means the food we eat could potentially be fertilized by this hazardous waste material.

ShellShell
In 1987, Shell patented a new, more ecologically-friendly technology that replaced the use of toxic barium as a drilling fluid. Then the company proceeded to not really use it that often. John Downes, former Shell scientist and creator of the technology, states that most of the 450,000 tons of hazardous waste Shell’s operations generated in 2001 were from drilling fluids.

Yet Shell recently ran an ad that featured the pristine Flower Gardens Marine Sanctuary, the sanctity of which is very likely threatened by drilling operations such as Shell’s. And given that Shell has willfully used a less environmentally friendly drilling process for sixteen years, the use of the Marine Sanctuary is as greenwashed as it gets.

JeepJeep
I must admit, I’m a little perplexed by the tag-line from a new ad campaign from Jeep: "The Jeep Liberty Renegade gives you the power to conquer nature as well as the ability to protect it." I just can’t imagine the premise here. Their target demographics must be naïve flower children -- "I bought my Jeep Liberty Renegade because it helps save endangered species" -- and amateur oil prospectors -- "I bought my Jeep Liberty Renegade because it helps me make nature my bitch!"

But it does seem more like Jeep is out to conquer wallets at the expense of nature than anything else: According to the "Don’t Be Fooled 2003" report, the Jeep Liberty Renegade only gets 16 miles to the gallon in the city, 22 on the highway. That’s slightly better than some other SUVs, but "this vehicle is far from being an environmental hero."

Okay, okay, I get it: I’m sure the ads mean to suggest you can conquer nature in the way you always see Jeeps defiantly astride mountain peaks in other Jeep ads -- as if there’s any satisfaction to be had in driving up a mountain instead of climbing or hiking. But how many Jeep owners ever drive their Jeeps to these places, anyway? Likewise, who will ever drive their Jeep to go save baby seals, as the commercial portrays? Does this type of imagery really fool anyone? Sadly, it must, or else Jeep wouldn’t spend so much money creating these ads. Thankfully, Earthday Resources for Living Green thinks that "It is time to stop placing the burden on consumers to distinguish between green rhetoric and environmental responsibility," and is doing something about it.

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