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Coke, Fritos, and Walmart Greenwashing: Are the Products You Buy Really Green?

A new report by the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has accused Walmart of greenwashing. In recent years, the retail giant has won praise from everyone from Al Gore to Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp for its efforts to green its global supply chain. But the ILSR says, “Walmart’s sustainability campaign has done more to improve the company’s image than the environment.” According to the Institute, Walmart still only generates two percent of its U.S. electricity from wind and solar resources, and routinely donates money to political candidates who vote against the environment. 

Walmart has responded by noting that it is serious about its commitment to reduce 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015. In a world in which companies compete by trying to win the hearts of green consumers, how can we tell who is the real deal?

One answer comes from environmental consulting firm terrachoice, which monitors corporate greenwashing and has compiled a list of 7 deadly sins of greenwashing. As consumer demand for cleaner greener products grows, companies develop green marketing strategies that are designed to win the minds and hearts of consumers rather than be environmentally beneficial.

The latest 2010 terrachoice report shows that more than 70% of all gree marketing commit the sin of no proof, an all-time high. This sin occurs when companies make an environmental claim without any direct proof to support that claim. For example, lights that claim to be energy-efficient but provide no proof of that claim or any product that claims to contain post-consumer recycled content but gives no evidence. For example, terrachoice focused its latest report on bisphenol A (BPA), an industrial chemical found in baby bottles and polycarbonate plastics. The report urged companies to provide proof of BPA free claims: “parents deserve proof. Get the studies, make them available.” Providing no evidence for a BPA free claim is committing the sin of no proof.   

The report also shows that sin of hidden trade-off has declined from 100% in 2007 to fewer than 30% in 2010. This sin is committed when companies emphasize one green practice but hide the overall cost of achieving that practice. One example given by Joe Barrios of Eco Village Green is that while it is true that bamboo is quickly becoming more sustainable, some companies hide the hazardous manufacturing process that turns bamboo into usable products. Kathryn Weichel’s article on greenwashing highlights this sin committed by Nestle’s eco-shape bottles. Nestle’s new bottle contains 30% less plastic making it fashionably thinner and easier to recycle. A deeper analysis finds that this claim is hiding trade-offs. According to an article, “Plastic Recycling and the Environment” manufacturing plastics creates large quantities of hazardous chemical pollutants. “So the use of plastic water bottles at all, regardless of the fact they have less plastic in them, is a trade-off,” notes Weichel.

Business Pundit compiled a list of the top 25 greenwashed products in America and four of them were soft drinks, namely Coca-Cola. According to Charles Wheelan, author of “Naked Economics,” Coke is most known for its guerilla marketing strategy in 1989 when, as the Berlin Wall was inexorably falling, Douglas Ivester, head of Coca-Cola Europe, sent his sales team to Berlin and ordered them to start passing out Coke for free. Wheelan describes that some members of the team were literally passing out Coke through holes in the wall all in an effort to gain recognition and set up business in East Germany. “We asked people what they were drinking, but we didn’t even have to say the name! We just shaped our hands like the bottle and people understood,” said Ivester. 

Nearly 20 years later, this bottle is perhaps the most famous product in the world and it comes as no surprise that in a world dominated by the green consumer, Coke has developed green marketing strategies. According to Tim Nudd of adweek, this past summer, Coca-Cola and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), developed a new billboard designed to absorb air pollution. The plants are contained in old Coke bottles that can absorb a total of 46,800 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. While this is an important environmental achievement, Coke only highlights the positive and hides the negatives of making soft drinks. “A World Without Water,” a documentary that explores the scarcity of the most essential element for life, highlights water stressed areas in third world countries. In one example, the team investigates a Coke factory that pumps water from beneath the sands of Rajasthan, India, to make soft drinks and bottled water. Since the factory was first set up, local wells have run dry every year because for every liter of soft drinks Coke makes, it extracts 3 liters of water. “We don’t want Coke here anymore,” says one farmer as he throws a rock down a dark, deep, well and hears it hit solid ground.

Ranked 13th were snack products, namely chips. Jared Fogle famously loss weight under the Subway diet and helped the company gain a good footing in a competitive food market. But exactly how many of Subway’s chips are all-natural? According to BakeryAndSnacks.com, Frito-Lay has been accused of making false all-natural claims on their products which also contain modified corn. The company’s sun chips, which presumably are made from solar energy, contain vegetable oils that are not natural and are designed to convince consumers that Frito-Lay cares about the environment.

Business Pundit notes that the hotel industry has ramped up deceptive green marketing in an effort to attract the eco-tourists. Director of communications of The International Ecotourism Society says, “I’ve stayed at hotels where you can put a card on your bed if you want your linens changed every other day, not washing linens everyday does not save the planet.” Weston Kosova, of The Daily Beast, says that by emphasizing recycling of towels and linens, hotels can save five percent on utility bills. In other words, it’s a trick to save the hotel more money instead of paying cleaners to actually wash the towels and linens.      

A demand for environmentally friendly products continues to rise as consumers become more aware of the power of “green.” But, this has led many companies to engage in a deceptive form of green marketing that does more to promote a company’s image than actually help the environment. So the next time you buy all-natural chips, or a Coke bottle, you should ask yourselves: Is this product really green?

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