Greenwashing Food: How to Smell a Rat

In just the last month, a media blitz has put Beef Products, Inc. all but out of the "pink slime" business and the Just Label It campaign delivered a record-breaking one million comments to the FDA, asking the agency to label genetically modified food. Suffice it to say that the good food movement (you know, the one the president wanted to see?) has arrived. Americans are interested in eating more sustainably, even if that means eating less meat, and people don't just want to know where their food comes from - they want to know who produced it, and how. Noticing this trend, industrial food giants like Walmart, McDonald's, Dominos and Frito Lay Corp have sought to capitalize on it. We've been talking about corporate "greenwashing" (and bluewashing too, for that matter) for a while, now, but if food activists have been hard at work talking to consumers about food systems, so have food marketers.

The nation's largest and most powerful retailer has spared no expense communicating to the public that they are committed to sustainability. In 2006, Walmart pledged to double sales of organic food when they were already the #1 retailer of organic milk - but by sourcing from industrial-scale factory farms and imports, the company helped weaken the value of the organic label and depress the US dairy market. In 2008, a company press release proclaimed that "Walmart Commits to America's Farmers as Produce Aisles Go Local," promising that nine percent of its U.S. fruits and veggies would be local by the end of 2015. But Walmart's definition of "local" is that the product is sold in the state in which it is produced--which means it can fill its promise just by having lots of stores in large states like in California, Texas and Florida, which have large populations and grow a lot of produce.

And Walmart is bad news for local economies and food systems in general. Its superstores take away customers from small, local retailers, which tend to be rooted in the community and therefore more committed to sustainable practices. In addition, the corporation's stronghold on our food supply has caused both grocery prices to rise and wages for farmers to decrease. A USDA analysis found that big retailers like Walmart use their market power to shortchange farmers who grow produce, paying them less than what they would get in a competitive market, while also charging consumers inflated prices. The retail giant is also currently renewing its efforts to get into big cities, and last July, standing side-by-side with Michelle Obama, pledged to open or expand as many as 300 stores "in or near" food deserts. An analysis by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office estimates that if Walmart opens in Harlem, at least 30 supermarkets, green grocers and bodegas selling fresh produce would be forced to close. A studypublished in Social Science Quarterly found that communities with Walmarts end up with more poverty and food stamp usage than those without. Researchby economists at the University of California-Irvine and Cornell attribute this increase in poverty to the fact that Walmarts reduce employment opportunities and lower wages.

Yet another study links Walmart to rising obesity rates. For more information on why you should be wary of Walmart, check out Food & Water Watch's excellent report Why Walmart Can't Fix the Food System and their newly released fact sheet Top Ten Ways Walmart Fails on Sustainability. (Not to mention the New York Times' investigation which reveals bribes were made to Mexican officials to fast-track superstore development in order to dominate the market, a scandal whose full impact remains to be seen.)

This is the essence of greenwashing: when all the evidence points to unsustainable practices, a marketing campaign does exactly the opposite.

Though Walmart is an excellent case study, lots of other large corporations take part in the practice. Let's spread some love around - here are a few other campaigns you may by familiar with:

This one is more like "wholesomewashing," but after the recent public outcry over "pink slime" led to pledges from giant supermarket chains including Walmart, Safeway and Kroger to no longer sell the product and prompted the USDA to allow school food administrators to opt out of using meat containing "lean finely textured beef," Beef Products Inc (BPI), the company that makes the product, came out heavy with a PR campaign claiming their product is "wholesome, nutritious and safe," and that the boycott of the product will cost the US jobs [PDF]. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and several state governors also spoke out in support of the product.

This past month, Monsanto and other biotech firms published a children's activity bookaimed toward teaching kids how how everything they do is selfless, unproblematic and makes our lives better. The "teacher helpful hints" at the end indicate Monsanto would like this to become a classroom text. We wish this was simply what it sounds like - a really not funny joke.

Back in January, McDonald's unveiled a new PR campaign, in which it doubled down hard on the "eat farm fresh" ideology. McDonald's U.S. Chief Marketing Officer Neil Golden told Ad Age, "We acknowledge that there are questions about where our food comes from. I believe we've got an opportunity to accentuate that part of our story." So how does McDonald's answer those questions? Through a series of "Supplier Stories" television commercials profiling potato, lettuceand beefproducers. But according to Ad Age:

"The four featured providers are Frank Martinez and Jenn Bunger, potatoes; Dirk Giannini, lettuce; and Steve Fogelsong at Black Gold Ranch, beef. They are secondary sources; McDonald's works directly with 250 suppliers, including Cargill, Lopez Foods, Golden State Foods, Simplot, Lamb Weston and Coca-Cola."

And of course, given the chain's massive size, it's hard to imagine it developing a meaningful relationship with any but the largest of its suppliers, let alone the actual growers. And, we would theorize, based on interactions with visitors to our Eat Well Guide, Sustainable Table and Meatrixsites, that people are not only interested in knowing where their food comes from, but how it's produced, too.

Maybe McDonald's took a tip from Domino's Pizza. In 2010, the company launched its "Behind the Pizza" campaign, which was comprised of television commercials showing the farms where the ingredients were sourced and even an online video game where you can click to see the "steps of production." And it looked good -- the farms in the commercial look like nice places! However, the website provides no actual information regarding their actual production methods. This piece on Ethical Eats breaks it down, screenshot by screenshot.

Sometimes, greenwashing leads to legal action: In two separate class-action lawsuits this past year, one in New York and one in California, consumers are filing suit against Frito-Lay chips for falsely claiming their Tostitos and SunChips products are "all-natural" and therefore better than competitors such as Doritos. Both lawsuits argue that these Frito-Lay products aren't "all-natural" because they contain corn and vegetable oils made from genetically modified plants that don't occur in nature.

These are just a few examples of greenwashing--and you undoubtedly have borne witness to many more. As a consumer, you should keep your eyes peeled and your BS-detector on high. Although these companies have power, it is no match for the power of an army of well-informed consumers who can change the world through the power of purchase.

Related links: Check out the Greenwashing Index and its sister site, the Leanwashing Index.