Remember Greenwashing? It was the term given to brands that lied, claiming their products were eco-friendly and therefore preferred by customers who were eco-minded, when the products really weren’t at all.

For some people, it was brought to their attention when the Australian Consumer Competitor Commission fined SAAB a few hundred thousand for its ‘Greeeeeeeen’ campaign.

Brands have largely behaved themselves since, while choosing to adopt a range of aesthetic trends to emotionally, ethically and environmentally resonate with potential purchasers.

To peer beyond the wrapper, my partner and I, on the recommendation of some friends, recently started using a new phone application called Shop Ethical 2011.

Designed by The Ethical Company Organisation, the app lists over 700 well-known brands and rates them as either Good, Bad or Ugly across three broad categories of environment, human rights and animal welfare. But a bit more on product selection in a minute.

First, it’s become apparent to me that a more subtle form of greenwashing is at play in our supermarkets, and it’s the very market itself.

The lovely Thomas Dux mid-size supermarkets are well-designed. Nice brand. Nice typographic wall-paper. Nice aisles that are wide and not too high. Nice polished concrete floors (probably heated conducted). Nice music. And nice, happy workers. Not to mention a range of nice products not so abundant in larger chains. And that’s because the company that owns Thomas Dux, Woolworths, has diversified.

I was inconsolable when I learned that Woolworths owned Thomas Dux. I thought an independent company had sprung up and grabbed some market space for themselves that Woolies hadn’t yet. But it had. And its inclination was bang on.

The writing was on the wall. As environmental notions of organically grown, fresh from the farm, whole foods, and fair trade swept through our mainstream press, inner city folk started to seek out the slow food style of community and country markets on the weekend, enjoying a chat with a vendor and free from the zombie parade of pushing a small car in front of you while avoiding others doing the same.

Inner city folk with high disposable cash will spend more of it to get less hassled. And they also like to feel different. If you wander into Woolies in any city, you’ll experience the opposite. For the more discerning customer, a feeling of place was first important to establish. And this is what outlets like Thomas Dux have done. And while the fruit ‘n’ veg section stocks a range of organic produce, the majority of products are not necessarily ‘earth friendly’. But that’s not the point. You feel good for shopping there. And that’s the first part of the evolution of greenwashing.

The second part, alluded to before regarding package design, has been happening for centuries. It’s just really obvious to me now.

Nice design eh? Makes you feel good huh? Looks homely and organic right?

A dairy cow munching on green grass in front of a setting sun means this cow has a happy life making you milk for your cheese. A silhouette of a bike and tree around an image of cereal equals, ‘this food will help you get fit or is for fit people, and will help the earth, or you, grow trees’.

So why isn’t this greenwashing? Is design a discipline free from concerns of malpractice?  There is a brand of eggs that upon first and second glance appears cage-free. The healthy chicken stands proud on a grassy meadow. Other chickens are being… chickens, in the background. But it’s only on the third glance, during a search for certain terminology when the words cage eggs are found. To a less concerned consumer, the design does its job convincing them these eggs are cage free.

(for more background on egg terminology read this interesting article from 2006)

Black ‘n’ Gold and Home Brand products appeal to a particular customer. I would guess as a deliberate (and economic) decision, both companies do not use branding tactics to portray their products favourably, nor pay, like some brands do, to shelve their products at eye level or near enough to, in order to achieve sales. Does it make their food taste any worse? Is a “no brand” tin made any less adequately than a tin with a label featuring more than a logo? My guess is no, but perception sure is a strong monkey.

And here’s where Shop Ethical ( S.E) comes out of your pocket. Rather than allow the usual quick scan of colours, food images and design to influence your decision, S.E. peers behind the label revealing who owns the product (a few surprises here, I assure you) and how that company has performed according to environmental, human rights and animal welfare criteria. A green tick is a safe bet. A green shape with no tick indicates fair enough. And a red cross means you shouldn’t support this company. When you look at the following snapshot of some well-known household brands, fond childhood memories may be replaced by a more discerning decision-making framework going forwards

  • SPC: Owned by Coke. May include GE derived ingrediants
  • Uncle Toby’s: Owned by Nestle. Who received the ‘Going Backwards for negative trends’ award in Environment Victoria’s DUMP report 2007 for its smoky coloured Nescafe glass jar due to it being unsuitable for recycling among other poor features.
  • Colgate-Palmolive: Tests on animals themselves or pays researchers to carry out animal tests on their behalf.
  • Cracker Barrel cheese: 100% owned by Lion Nathan, which is 100% owned by Kirin Holdings. Receives a red cross due to a subsidiary of Kirin’s pharmaceutical division genetically modifying cattle for human antibody protection.

And the volume and depth of information goes on. One fantastic feature of S.E. is its library of associated reports and organisations such as Climate Counts (which rates companies against climate change mitigation criteria), and Uncaged (which provides information on the terminology and categories regarding references to animal testing). Another great feature of the app allows users to share reports via Facebook and Twitter, though the ability to add your own comments to the library would be a great addition.

In my opinion, far too many products get away with a form of greenwashing through package design. So what does a world look like with products with bland packaging ensuring its sourcing and manufacturing methods are the main differentiator? Is it good or bad for the market? For the economy? I’m not sure. But I believe a whole lot more truth and information is needed and is coming to the world of food production.

In fact, I think the next trend in supermarket chains is a barn with real live animals where you get to catch them and…

Who knows?

This post was partially inspired by the release of a new app. called Shop Ethical, and about a 100 or so kilometres spent over the last few years wandering around shopping aisles.


Links: Guardian UK