Earth Day Message: Beware of Greenwashing

“Greenwashing” occurs when a company puts a lot of marketing and public relations effort into delivering a message that they’re very “green” when in fact they are not. An example would be an oil company that takes out ads in influencial magazines touting their wind and solar power research when in fact that represents only 1% of their R&D budget (the rest goes into fossil fuels exploitation).

We frequently hear about those big cases of greenwashing, but it happens on all levels. On this Earth Day I urge you all to read the labels on products before you buy them, and to be wary of green claims. Don’t allow yourself to be wooed.

It can be subtle, especially when the green message is only by association. Some brands imply greenness simply because of the brand; they don’t even have to be explicit. Yet there is no guarantee that the item has any actual “green” value.

Here’s an example: Whole Foods Market claims it is the “world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods.” Their web site and stores are filled with messages of green ecology and of wastelessness. When you finish eating at their cafeteria, you have to sort your waste by paper, plastic, and compostables.

With billing like that, you’d probably assume that anything you buy at Whole Foods will have been vetted by the company for it’s environmental impact. However, I was in the Whole Foods store in Soho, New York, a few days ago, and I happened upon a stack of packages of cedar planks near the fish department. “Planking” is a method of cooking fish in which you place the fish (usually salmon) on top of a cedar plank and then put it on the grill. The heated wood imparts a nice flavor on the food.

I’ve always thought that planking was very wasteful. After all, you’re only supposed to use the plank once; that’s a lot of wood to use for the sake of flavoring one piece of fish. At Whole Foods I decided to turn the package of three planks over and read the label. Here’s what I discovered:

  • The wood was from Canada.
  • The wood was processed in China,
  • The processed wood was packaged in the United States.

That’s a lot of international travel for a few pieces of wood, and it’s hardly ecological. It’s bad enough that you’re using a whole chunk of cedar for one piece of fish, but the fact that it was shipped to China and back just to be sawed into rough planks is too much (particularly since Canadian sawmills are desperate for work). All that so you can pay a dollar less for your three planks.

I was very disappointed, particularly since I really like Whole Foods; they have marvelous stores with really nice and interesting products. However, the lesson, as always, is to read the label, and to be aware that branding is 80% bullshit.