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Corporate greenwashing

August 23, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

We have all read product labels like “natural ingredients”, “recyclable” and “organic” to make us trust that what we buy is safer and healthier for us and our environment. Sadly, many such claims are misleading and often downright false. This is called “greenwashing”.

Greenwashing refers to the intentional use of misleading and untrue claims of environmentally friendly ingredients, practices, products and services through advertising and mislabelling. Clever wording makes you believe something is better for you, the planet or the animals that became your food. Many advertised ‘green’ claims couldn’t be further from the truth.

Examples range from food to packaging, and from household products to cars: “Flushable” wet wipes that are proven to clog up sewer and septic systems; cars that claim clean Diesel fuel; compostable coffee pods that require industrial facilities to compost; and ingredient claims as “natural” (when many toxic minerals and substances like arsenic, mercury and asbestos are found directly in nature and therefore natural). Natural doesn’t automatically mean safe and recyclable or biodegradable means only “under the right conditions”. 

CBC’s Marketplace investigated and created a list of the ten worst household products in terms of environmental claims. One is Dawn antibacterial dish soap. You know the TV ad, people saving marine birds – enter cute little ducklings – blackened by oil spills, then washing them in soapy Dawn suds and releasing them squeaky-clean and happy back into nature. Marketplace tests showed this dish soap contains Triclosan, an antibacterial ingredient, which is in fact toxic to aquatic life. 

Then there is food with claims of natural or organic. Most store-bought eggs are from factory farm chickens raised in tiny, bare cages. Free-run should mean product from happier hens, though not always. Free-run means animals are raised in barns where they can wander a little but that is open to interpretation. To maximise profits, many chicken farms raise hens in closed, warehouse-sized barns with 10,000 to 20,000 so tightly packed they can barely move. The same goes for ‘industrial’ pig and cattle farms. To see what that looks like, Google images for ‘factory farm chickens/pigs/cattle’. Free-range means animals have access to the outdoors. For truly organic and more ethical, as well as healthier and tastier eggs and meat, buy from a local farm, farmers’ market, small butcher shop or local cooperative, like Rowe Farms or similar. Sadly, when consumers want it cheap, it is the animals that pay the price.

Maybe the most-used greenwashing term is “recyclable”. Many types of plastic and glass packaging are in theory recyclable. However, it depends how much of it goes into the municipal pickup, whether the right recycling facilities are available locally and if there is a market for the recycled product. Canada-wide, merely 9% of plastics are recycled, says the Recycling Council of Ontario. The rest ends up in landfill, incinerators or as litter on land and in waterways. This is why the best way to reduce packaging waste issues is to reduce the overall use of throwaway packaging.  

Another greenwashing method is to emphasise one good deed with advertising that touches our heartstrings to distract from a bigger unethical action. Going back to my last column on bottled water and the big three companies: The mainstream of their businesses are water and soft drinks, for which they draw obscene amounts from public water sources around the globe – locally in Wellington, Lake Simcoe, Blue Mountains etc. and also drought-riddled places like California, Oregon, and poorer countries in South America, Africa and India. To cover up those practices, they make themselves look like heroes (aka greenwashing), by sponsoring a public water project, maybe for schools or a disaster area, and glamorising their good deeds.

Nestlé calls itself The Healthy Hydration Company and on their website for their Project Water they state, “Clean and safe drinking water it critical to survival”. Conversely, their own chairman and former CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, stated publicly that “access to water is not a public right” nor a human right. They set up water bottling plants in countries like Pakistan, where groundwater is unregulated, and take as much water as they want, without paying a penny, and sell their Pure Life water brand in Pakistan, Asia, Africa and South America as “capturing nature in its purest form”.

Of course, we need to believe product labels and claims; how else are we to know what is good, safe and healthy? We can’t all be experts and research everything before buying.

What to do to avoid being greenwashed? Educate yourself! Read product labels, ask questions and look up reports. Books like “Ecoholic” by Adria Vasil list truly environmental products and services in Canada and tips on what to avoid. Be sceptical of green claims and change some of your purchasing habits to stop feeding corporate greenwashing.



         

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