When we shop ‘sustainably’ for our groceries, that should include sustainable sourcing, growing, and distribution, with consideration to the health, environmental, and social impacts along the entire food supply chain. This means consideration to both animals’ and workers’ welfare, energy and use of resources in production, the associated emissions from logistics, transportation and packaging, and the overall sustainability of the distributor company.
The amount of factors to consider when deciding whether a product is sustainable or not can therefore be overwhelming for the consumer, and makes it very challenging when trying to assess the products on a supermarket shelf. We must usually rely on the food packaging, and are used to looking out for certain labels (Fairtrade, Organic), certain ingredients to avoid, the country of origin, and the packaging type to name a few (ref). Companies are beginning to catch on to consumers looking for more sustainable food options, and use the Greenwashing phenomenon to try and convince us that all the previously listed sustainability factors have been met, when in fact a lot of the time this is not the case.
Greenwashing is the term given to the way in which companies make themselves or their products appear to be environmentally friendly and sustainable, without really creating any meaningful environmental impact, but rather as a PR tactic to increase the appeal in the eye of the consumer (ref). This could include bold ‘green’ claims on packaging, nature-inspired and green-coloured branding to convey sustainability, or vague claims to redirect your attention away from the real problem. This can be observed across nearly all industries nowadays, such as within fashion or technology companies, and is being more and more adopted by food and supermarket chains and production companies.
Let’s take a look at some examples. In 2015, Coca-Cola launched their Coke Life bottle, rebranding it with a green label and nature based marketing, with the claim that it was healthier and more sustainable to produce, but research from experts found the difference to be minimal (ref). Furthermore, the company has come under fire in more recent years about the way it portrays its packaging, having spent millions promoting their new bottles made of 25% marine plastic, when in fact, they remain the world’s biggest plastic polluters (ref). Even companies that we may typically consider to be sustainable have fallen into the greenwashing trap. Quorn, providing meat-free alternatives, came under scrutiny from the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in 2020, after labelling a new product with the tagline ‘helps us to reduce our carbon footprint’, but with no further backing or detail relating to this (ref).
Greenwashing goes beyond just the food products within the industry – green buzzwords used in packaging are also something to watch out for. Since regulatory crackdowns on plastic within the food industry, we have seen the rise of the magical ‘biodegradable’ or ‘compostable’ packaging. Unfortunately, this often tricks consumers into thinking that the packaging can be landfilled or recycled with minimal environmental impact, when the reality is that these are often no better than regular plastic. For instance, it is often the case that compostable packaging is actually only industrially compostable, meaning it requires specific industrial facilities to decompose which a lot of local councils are unable to handle (ref). Similarly, biodegradable packaging requires very specific conditions for the plastic to break down after a few months, with factors including the moisture content, light exposure and oxygen levels (ref). Such conditions are not replicated in landfills, and so the plastic is unable to biodegrade at all.
So what can we do? It can be overwhelming when it seems like the whole food industry is working against us to trick us into thinking we are buying green, but there are ways around this. Firstly, look out for food assurance labels, which certify that produce has been responsibly sourced. You’ll be familiar with the more common labels such as Fairtrade or Organic, but here is a more comprehensive list of labels used in the UK to indicate sustainable production. You can also keep an eye out for any sweeping ‘eco’ statements along the lines of ‘zero carbon!’ or ‘kind to the earth!’, which often lack any substantial evidence behind. Read the labels not the packaging, shop fresh and local where possible, and keep companies accountable. Good luck!