Growing Number Of Corporations Using ‘Greenwash Marketing’ To Cash In On Demand For Organic Food

Yankton Press and Dakotan
By Lisa Hare

With the growing success of organics and increasing consumer interest in buying foods grown on sustainable farms without toxic chemicals, many food companies are launching new marketing campaigns chock-full of environmental-friendly catchphrases and re-packaging products that lend the appearance of the company “going green” — even if little or no actual change to the product has occurred.

In February, mega-food company Sara Lee launched the Eco-Grain™ label for its EarthGrains breads with a major marketing campaign that blanketed the Web, Facebook, Twitter and National Public Radio.

Sara Lee billed the trademarked product as “environmentally friendly” bread that “will save the earth, one field at a time” because Eco-Grain wheat is grown with “precision agriculture.”

Though actually used in small proportions in its EarthGrains brand breads, Eco-Grain is touted by the company as more sustainable than organic grain. What has been described as a “crass and exploitative marketing ploy” has angered many in the organic community.

“For Sara Lee to claim that their wheat is ecologically grown and sustainable, when they appear to make no effort to reduce or eliminate their use of toxic pesticides that have terrible effects on the environment and public health, is highly disingenuous,” said Nathan Jones, an organic farmer from King Hill, Idaho, and chairman of the Organic Advisory Board of the Idaho state department of agriculture.

The trouble with calling Eco-Grain environmentally friendly is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, neither of which are environmentally friendly, are still used in the production of the wheat that is used to produce Eco-Grain. Also, precision agriculture isn’t exactly something new, or something exclusive to Eco-Grain farmers. In fact, more and more conventional farmers of all the major commodity crops are using precision technology in applying chemical fertilizer to their fields.

In precision farming, satellite imagery is used to identify various levels of soil nutrients of a given field to determine fertilizer requirements for different areas of that field. Also known as “variable rate technology” (VRT), this allows the farmer to pinpoint which areas of the field need more or less fertilizer, instead of blanketing the entire field with one big dose.

“Consumers aren’t necessarily aware that (precision agriculture) is not new,” said Charlotte Vallaeys, food and farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic industry watchdog.

“It’s more of a cost-saving practice for farmers, not an environmentally friendly or sustainable method of production, but that’s how (Sara Lee) is marketing it,” she added.

Another point of confusion for consumers is in the term ‘natural’ which splays across the label in bold print: “Eco-Grain 100 % Natural.”

“The term ‘natural’ on products like bread is not regulated by state or federal government,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University. “Companies that use the term ‘all natural’ essentially come up with their own definition.”

“‘Natural’ can mean anything,” Vallaeys said. “Because there’s no legal definition, there’s no third-party verification or legal protection.”

Vallaeys added that a growing number of corporations like Sara Lee are seeking to profit from consumers’ interest in ecological and healthy food production. But unlike organic companies, these companies are doing practically nothing to ensure that ingredients are truly ecologically produced.

“It’s a prime example of corporations trying to capitalize on the valuable market cachet of organic, while intentionally misleading consumers — without making any meaningful commitment to protect the environment or produce safer and more nutritious food,” Vallaeys said.

In addition to the organic prohibition against chemical fertilizers, federal regulations also prohibit organic farmers from using toxic pesticides that are commonly applied to conventional wheat fields, including those growing Eco-Grain.

One such pesticide typically used in conventional wheat production is 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), which EPA researchers have correlated with numerous birth defects of the respiratory and circulatory systems, as well as defects like clubfoot, fused digits and extra digits.

Other research has linked the use of toxic pesticides on wheat fields to increased cancer mortality rates.

In addition to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, conventional wheat farmers sometimes use synthetic fungicides and other chemicals to treat their fields.

Sara Lee responded to the criticism by issuing a statement that said that EarthGrains never claimed that Eco-Grain products are organic. “We’ve been completely transparent about the environmental benefits,” the company said.

In addition, some of Sara Lee’s other bread ingredients, such as soy oil and soy lecithin, are grown and processed using genetic engineering and chemical extraction with the toxic solvent hexane, both technologies that are banned in organic production.

However, the company insists Eco-Grain wheat “is grown using precision agriculture, an innovative farming practice shown to reduce the use of fertilizer and fuel, which is better for the environment.” It claims the introduction of Eco-Grain is the “first step toward improving the environmental benefits of our products, and we know that more can be done.”

But the company’s environmental track record reveals a different path. The EarthGrains Baking Companies, Inc., a subsidiary of Sara Lee, paid a $5.25 million civil penalty for leaking refrigerants at a rate 35 percent higher than allowed by law. A 2003 Department of Justice press release called the violations the “the largest ever corporate-wide violations of stratospheric ozone protection regulations.”

Climate Counts, a nonprofit organization rating corporations on their efforts towards mitigating climate change, gave Sara Lee a score of only two in its 2007 Company Scorecard Report. The report said Sara Lee ranked in the bottom because it “made limited or no public efforts to engage in a widening discourse on climate change and corporate climate initiative.”

And Sara Lee isn’t the only company trying to cash in on the nation’s green revolution. Several companies are finding new ways to “greenwash” their products.

While the organic label is the gold standard of eco-labels on food packages, one major loophole in the federal organic standards remains. While companies are tightly regulated in terms of their use of the word “organic” on food packaging, some businesses are deceiving customers by using the words “organic” or “organics” in their company name on food that does not legally qualify as organic.

“Deceptive labeling practices, like putting ‘organic’ in a company or brand name, hurts the ethical competitors and the entire organic food industry by blurring the meaning of the word ‘organic’ for consumers,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for Cornucopia. “Consumers should be able to trust that any food package with the word ‘organic’ displayed prominently is truly certified organic, contains predominantly organic ingredients, and meets the letter and spirit of the law. Unfortunately, this is another example of a major agribusiness trying to blur the line between products labeled ‘organic’ and ‘natural.”

Oskri Organics, Organic Bistro and Newman’s Own Organics are examples of companies selling products that do not qualify to bear the USDA organic seal, yet may appear organic to consumers based on the prominence of the word “organic” in their brand name.

Oskri Organics sells a variety of foods, including fruit preserves, nutrition bars and tahini (sesame butter). Some of their products, however, contain no certified organic ingredients. These Oskri Organics products are therefore no different from conventional foods, yet many consumers are presumably being led to believe they are organic based on the company name displayed on product packaging.

Organic Bistro sells frozen entrees made with organic vegetables, but uses non-organic chicken and turkey.

“There is certainly no shortage of organic chicken or organic turkey, which are obviously more expensive than conventional meats,” Kastel said. “By using conventional ingredients to cut costs, yet displaying the word ‘organic’ so prominently on their packages, Organic Bistro is unfairly competing with truly organic companies that commit to sourcing organic meat.”

Newman’s Own Organics sells some certified organic products and some that only qualify for the “made with organic” label (70 percent organic content), yet uses the term “organics” in their name — on all food packages.

Newman’s Own Organics, founded by the late actor Paul Newman and his daughter Nell, is a prominent company in the natural/organic marketplace and respected for the generous donations of their profits to charity.

Newman’s Own Organics Newman-O’s cookies contain conventional sugar, conventional canola oil and conventional cocoa, yet the Web page displays the USDA organic seal and states: “Like our other products, Newman-O’s are certified organic by Oregon Tilth.” Yet these products do not legally qualify to bear the word “organic” or the USDA organic seal on their packaging.

“Newman-O’s, a product similar to Nabisco’s Oreo cookies, are not organic, yet consumers are led to believe that they are,” Vallaeys said. “Products that contain conventional ingredients, which are freely available in organic form, would never qualify for the USDA organic seal, and we think it’s time for the USDA to crack down on corporations gaming the system.”

Other companies that offer both conventional and organic products have not acted deceptively, by eliminating the term “organic” from their company name or company logo on their non-organic packaging.

Although Dean Foods’ WhiteWave division took a lot of heat last year when it introduced its first non-organic dairy products under the Horizon label, for example, the giant dairy conglomerate no longer uses the term “organic” in its name or on its brand logo for its new “natural” product line.

“It seems that some corporations appear more interested in corporate profit and greenwashing than true environmental stewardship, and are doing everything they can to take advantage of this confusion among consumers,” Kastel said.

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