Skip to content

6. Navigating Greenwashing


The term ‘greenwash’ was coined in the 1980’s by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in reference to a destructively expanding holiday resort making a point about re-using towels. It was quickly picked up to describe some outrageous attempts by oil and nuclear power companies to appear eco-friendly.

Greenwashing is also rife in our food systems and can make choosing products that are not harmful to people and planet a rather vexing task.

The combination of increasing consumer interest in ethical produce and a profit driven food system inevitably leads to misleading information. Companies try to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers without having to make costly changes to their impacts.

Becoming greenwash savvy not only enables you to better align your food choices with your values, but it demonstrates to companies that they need to start making meaningful changes.

What to look out for...

Don’t be drawn in by a wholesome image

Years of in depth research has gone into the packaging and advertising decisions made by large corporations and it’s a highly effective way of influencing our perception. Imagery of the countryside, happy looking animals and rustic looking farmers living the good life can all be used to make a product appear good for people and planet, without even having to make claims to that effect.

Take, for example the Ambrosia logo – a delightful farmhouse nestled in the rolling Devon hills which instantly conjures up images of home cooking, a family business and happy cows munching on grass. If Ambrosia used an image of the actual factory – a large square brick building located right off the A30 – you might be more inclined to ask questions about where that milk comes from and how the products are produced.

This isn’t to say that having an unpicturesque factory automatically means poor environmental standards, just that a nice image can lead consumers away from asking the right questions.

Don’t take offsetting activities into account

Many companies like to talk about how they sent their staff on a tree planting day or donated a percentage of their profits to a wildlife charity. This approach is often used to talk about the environmental or social responsibility without actually having to acknowledge the impacts of the food being produced. An example of this can be found when supermarkets support wildflower planting to help pollinator populations whilst simultaneously sourcing food that is grown as a monoculture that uses agrochemicals – both at detriment to insect populations.

Look for proof

Be careful about vaguely defined terms. You might have a clear idea of what counts as sustainable but with no legal definition a company can use the word sustainable to describe practices that you might not view in the same way. At least in the UK food industry, a product described as organic has to be certified as organic. However, companies with the word ‘organic’ in their name can still sell non-organic food.

Certifications are a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand they offer a great way to verify claims made about a product. On the other hand, a certification with low standards is an excellent tool for greenwashing. Be wary of schemes that are industry led, such as the Red Tractor scheme, or constitute self-certifying, such as Sainsbury’s move away from Fairtrade certified tea towards using its own ‘Fairly Traded’ label.

Campaign groups can play an important role in holding certification bodies to account. For example, On the Hook ran a campaign demanding for an independent review of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) , and Greenpeace and The Forest Trust have roundly criticised the Roundtable for Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO)

Be wary of companies making a big deal about minimum standards

Watch out for companies making a big fuss about something we should all expect as minimum. For example, phrases like ‘no artificial ingredients’ or ‘made from natural ingredients’ mean that the product is made from raw ingredients. These could still have been grown in a highly industrialised manner that is highly damaging to the environment and wildlife.

Some certifications are also guilty of this. A lot of meat in the UK carries the Red Tractor logo which ensures animal welfare standards. However, a 2012 Compassion in World Farming report found that the scheme had the lowest standards of all the labels they looked at and essentially just required the minimum legal standard. The campaign group reiterated these findings in response to complaints about the report by the Red Tractor scheme:

“In our view, minimum legislation often falls well short of what can be deemed good or higher welfare, allowing for some of the worst factory farm systems and practices. For this reason, our analysis looked at the level to which farm assurance schemes insist on higher standards or simply assure compliance with the minimum. I call on all national farm assurance schemes to back any higher welfare claims with standards that go above and beyond minimum legislative requirements. I believe this is what the buying public would expect from any scheme claiming to assure high standards of welfare”.

Think holistically

Some companies might hone in on the one positive attribute of their food and gloss over the less appealing aspects. For example:

  • A company could make palm oil free claims but give no consideration to the ethical sourcing of other ingredients.
  • A UK producer might highlight a product’s lower food miles while using heated polytunnels to grow food more suited to sunnier climates. Fruit and vegetables grown out of season in the UK in a heated greenhouse can easily have a higher climate impact than if they are grown abroad and transported here.
  • A product might be advertised as vegan but be made from plants grown or harvested in a way that is harmful to wildlife. For example, Ethical Consumer’s ‘meat-free’ shopping guide found a number of brands to be lacking policies that ensured their soy did not contribute to deforestation.

The food system is just that – a system, We therefore need to take a holistic approach if we are to create a better food system. Look for producers and manufacturers that have ethical practices embedded in their activities rather than as a reactive afterthought. For example; Greater Manchester’s ‘Veg box People’ started as they meant to go on – with the intention of creating a healthy alternative to a damaging food system.

“We were worried about the impact of the current food industry on the environment, on our high streets, on small-scale farmers and ultimately ourselves as consumers”.

Their organic veg scheme is also supported by The Kindling Trust, a not-for-profit organisation that “is working towards a just and ecologically sustainable society”.

Buying from the Veg Box People is very different to buying organic vegetables from a supermarket which is still deeply embedded in a harmful food system.

Follow the money

Buying a well established ethical company or brand allows big corporations to capitalise on the reputation built up by the good practice of that company. Even when these brands are allowed to maintain their own policies, the profits still end up going to the parent company who may be involved in harmful practices. Pukka Teas (owned by Unilever), Innocent Smoothies (owned by Coca-Cola) and Green & Blacks chocolate (owned by Mondelez) are all well-known examples of relatively ethical companies ending up in the hands of multinational giants.

Keep it simple

Navigating all these different factors can feel overwhelming, but keeping your food shopping habits simple can help. It’s a lot easier to understand the impacts and origins of wholefoods, fruits and vegetables than a product with a long list of different ingredients. It can also help to pick a few trusted sources. By sticking with transparent and ethical companies and producers you can feel confident your food has a low, if not positive, impact while providing a sustainable income for an ethical trader (unless they are bought of course!). Using a Better Food Trader is a great place to start.

Delving deeper

Discuss with the group your own experience of greenwashing.

Change Tastes Good

By swapping your supermarket shop for a Better Food Trader you are doing the planet a massive favour.

Sign Up. Pick Up. Eat Up.