Greenwashing: The unhealthy side of the food industry

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August 24, 2023 - As environmental claims come under greater scrutiny, companies are facing backlash over unethical greenwashing practices, such as making inflated or unproven environmental claims to position products as more appealing to eco-conscious consumers.

In the food and beverage industry, greenwashing involves exaggerated or unsubstantiated claims that certain products are environmentally friendly (e.g., made from 100% recycled materials or support the organization’s wider green promise). For example, companies may label a food product as “all-natural” without changing the formulation significantly from versions of the product that are not labeled as “all-natural,” creating confusion for the consumer.

Research reported by Harvard Business Review shows that in 2022, 42% of green claims were exaggerated, false, or deceptive, which points to greenwashing on an industrial scale. In response to this, in March 2023, the European Parliament approved the adoption of new rules that require organizations to prove their environmental claims, with the sole aim of protecting consumers from greenwashing. The rule will also crack down on organizations announcing emission reduction goals without having concrete plans to achieve them or putting metrics in place to monitor progress.

The risks of greenwashing for businesses in the food industry are significant, potentially leading to consumer backlash, lawsuits and prosecutions. 

In a bid to reduce landfill waste, Starbucks introduced a ”straw-less” plastic lid in the US, replacing the traditional takeaway cup with a disposable straw. However, an investigation into the cups found that the new lid contained more plastic by weight than the old lid and straw combination. A better alternative would have been a biodegradable straw and more consideration of how people will use and dispose of the product.

As regulators mandate emission-reduction measures, environmental best practices, and other sustainability goals, companies making claims relating to their environmental stewardship efforts will face further scrutiny. Without the objective evidence available to support their claims, plans, and commitments, they will leave themselves open to future risk of greenwashing. For instance, in the UK, the Competition and Markets Authority launched a probe into food products labelled as “sustainable” or “environmentally friendly,” citing concerns about exaggerated credentials.

What can food safety and quality professionals do to reduce the risk of greenwashing on product labels and claims?

  • Collaborate and communicate. By collaborating with marketing and PR colleagues, food safety and quality leaders can constructively challenge and verify unsupported labels or claims. Just as the industry adheres to food safety standards (e.g., Global Food Safety Initiative’s (GFSI) benchmarked standards to demonstrate their commitment to food safety), a similar approach should be taken with green claims.
  • Use recognized and trustworthy standards and certifications. Third-party standards and product certifications can validate organizations’ claims regarding environmental risk management (ISO 14001), how they have designed in material circulation (ISO 14009), and how they are working toward the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions throughout their organization and supply chain (ISO 14064).
  • Avoid vague or misleading terms. Again, by working closer with marketing and PR, food and beverage organizations can avoid using terms like ”eco-friendly,” ”sustainable,” or ”natural“ without providing evidence to back up their claims.
  • Be transparent. The food and beverage industry can present clear, accurate information about its products and packaging, who made them, under what conditions, and using what standards. While working towards the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2030 and 2050 sustainability goals, transparency on environmental practices and ways of reducing environmental impact are essential.
  • Use evidence. Use evidence-based claims and data to back up environmental dues. Scientific studies and life cycle assessments can help verify claims alongside partnering with trusted solutions and partners in the standards, testing, and certification industry. (Read more in LCA and its role in sustainability by Ramin Ghamkhar, PhD, Sustainability Consultant).

With greenwashing rife in the food and beverage industry, it’s critical that environmental and sustainability information presented to consumers is genuine. Organizations can significantly reduce their risk of accusations of greenwashing through transparency and open communication, evidence-based claims, and using recognized standards to support their statements.

For more on this topic, read Addressing A Lack Of Transparency In Green Claims. For real-time updates on top supply chain issues, register for BSI’s Connect SCREEN tool; this platform provides daily analysis on the latest and most relevant global supply chain trends. Read more on food security in Bridging the gap between food fraud and food security. For more supply chain, digital trust, and environmental, health, and safety topics that should be at the top of your list, visit BSI’s Experts Corner.