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Observations on Transparency and Greenwashing

March 9, 2010

Last week I attended a Chicago Sustainability Business Association meeting discussing the challenges of trustworthy and ongoing communications with customers and observers … how to avoid Greenwashing.   It is not easy.  The marketing firm Terrachoice has developed “The Seven Sins of Greenwashing” to help companies better understand what not to do.

I was struck by Wal*mart’s successes:  they laid out objective targets and benchmarks for reducing carbon and reducing waste.  Recently they partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund and TreeHugger to publicly announce they, Walmart, are committing to eliminate 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from the life cycle of the products that they sell over the next 5 years.  Obviously, this means working with many of their suppliers.

Further, they are committing to the creation of a labeling system that can communicate to the consumer the  relative “greenness” of a product via an independent, third party consortium.  These folks have their work cut out for them.

The interesting element for me is that I have NOT heard anyone accuse Wal*mart of greenwashing.  Yes, they are hoping that the stands they are taking may attract people to their stores.  Yes, they are hoping that customers will choose more of their products in the belief they have gone through some scrutiny for sustainability, which many have.  At this point, only a Walmart line of jewelry makes a claim for greater earth friendliness – and has the transparent life cycle path to substantiate the claim.  Wal*mart is making an impact, and it is doing so with public, objectively measurable benchmarks.

Contrast that to Sara Lee and their “Eco-Grain(TM)” claims.   I live in the Chicago area,  home of Sara Lee, so of course I heard about this.  The Cornucopia Institute took Sara Lee to task in their 2/22/10 commentary:  Cornucopia, a Wisconsin firm that supports organic and sustainable farms within their mission of “promoting economic justice for family scale farming” is justified in challenging marketing messages that serve to obscure the real attributes of a product. 

Sara Lee is upfront about the product on their website: only 20% of the flour in their line of natural breads are made from Eco-Grain(TM) wheat.  The rest comes from commercially raised wheat, on commercially farmed farms.  The grain has been developed to taste good and grow well, and probably has some favorable processing characteristics.  There is no claim on whether it’s a “natural” hybrid or strain, or whether more technological methods were used.  Sara Lee’s transparency about the current level of the “new” grain use is a good step.

The “eco” comes into play through farms that invest in Variable Rate Nutrition Technology VRN) – satellite mapping that allows farmers to map a field and reduce fertilizer use in the parts of the field that don’t need as much.  This technology appears to be largely independent of the actual grain, and can be tailored to accommodate other crops. 

So the story winds up being Sara Lee’s introducing a new strain of grain (again, no information on its breeding or derivation) that is grown on farms where farmers are investing in technology to reduce their use of fertilizers, certainly a laudable effort, but apparently independent of the grain or brand.  The linkage to the claim “Helping to Preserve the Earth, One Field at a Time” is tenuous at best. 

Sara Lee’s Eco-Grains would appear to be guilty of TerraChoice’s Sin of Vagueness or Sin of the hidden Trade-off.   I recommend TerraChoice include another sin which may be related to its Sin of Worshiping False Labels.  This would be the Sin of Falsely Reflected Glow, when a product attempts to be aligned with a positive but totally independent beneficial characteristic.  If Sara Lee were investing in spreading VRN technology, they could have made that claim.  There was no information on that.

Avoiding greenwashing can be done.  It takes a brutally honest mirror, a good third party – or critical friend – lens through which to examine the claims, a willingness to avoid the bandwagon until one really has something to say, and a commitment to preserving the credibility of the market.

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