Plastic, pollution and waste – the food industry is responsible for pumping it out in vast quantities. However, now more than ever, consumers are aware of the importance of sustainability and protecting the environment, with 80% of UK residents concerned about climate change.
Big brands are, of course, aware of consumers becoming more socially and environmentally conscious. So, this has led to many companies integrating terms like 'sustainability' and 'ethically sourced' into their marketing campaigns.
While on the surface, this may seem like a wonderfully progressive step in the right direction, unfortunately, in many instances, it's a case of style over substance. This is greenwashing.
So what does sustainability actually mean? How are big food brands twisting the truth, and what can smaller food brands do to promote their own green message?
What exactly is greenwashing?
Back in 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld penned a critical essay about the hotel industry. Staying at a hotel in Fiji, he noticed a note encouraging guests to reuse their towels in the bathroom. It was more eco-friendly, they said, and helped to protect the island's ecosystem and coral reefs.
Westervelt realised the hypocrisy of this note when discovering that the hotel was undergoing expansion and building right next to the coral reefs it claimed it wanted to protect. So, he concluded that the hotel's note really had nothing to do with promoting sustainability at all. This is when the term greenwashing was first coined, and it is something that has been deeply embedded into food industry marketing for decades.
That said, it was much easier for companies to get away with greenwashing in the past because consumers' understanding of green issues was much more limited. Now, that's all changed. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published the world's largest public opinion survey on climate change earlier this year. The report showed that 64% of people believe climate change is a global emergency. Meanwhile, research from Getty Images revealed that out of those polled, 91% believe the way we treat our planet now will have a big impact on its future.
In recent years, the number of people who identify as a vegan has soared too. In 2020, Britain's vegan population increased by 40%. Meanwhile, according to a United Nations estimate, there are around 79 million vegans on the planet. This figure is also rising at an accelerated rate. After all, the more plant-based a diet, the more sustainable it is.
This means that more and more consumers genuinely care about where their food comes from and its impact on the planet, after all, food production accounts for 26% of global GHG emissions. So, with consumers’ sustainability awareness growing, big food companies' promises are appearing much more false.
Sustainability: Big companies, big lies
Earlier this year, the International Consumer Protection Enforcement Network conducted an annual sweep of nearly 500 websites, including websites from the food industry. It found that 40% were guilty of employing some kind of greenwashing. This included making "vague claims" and using terms such as "sustainable" and "eco" without "adequate explanation or evidence" of the claims.
Even more concerning, the sweep discovered that brands were using eco logos and labels that were not, in fact, associated with an accredited organisation. Elsewhere, the sweep found that brands were also "hiding" and "omitting" information, including information related to their products' pollution levels, in an effort to appear "more eco-friendly."
Commenting on the widespread nature of the greenwashing phenomenon, Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, said: "Too many websites appear to be pushing misleading claims onto consumers, which means that companies offering products with a genuine environmental benefit are not getting the customers they deserve. People should be able to easily choose between those companies who are doing the right thing for the environment and those who are not."
Meanwhile, in Break Free From Plastic's 2020 annual audit, it was found that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé were the top plastic polluters for three years in a row. Specifically, Coca-Cola was labelled as the number one plastic polluter, while all three were accused of making no progress on reducing plastic waste.
In the same year, Nestlé pledged to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. PepsiCo made a similar promise for better sustainability this year, as did Coca-Cola. However, after many years of failed promises, it's hard not to feel cynical about these companies' sustainability goals and targets, especially considering that Coca-Cola is currently facing a lawsuit over false advertising over sustainability claims.
Abigail Aguilar, Plastics Campaign Regional Coordinator, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said that Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé's ranking in the 2020 audit is "not surprising." Expanding on this point, she said: "These companies claim to be addressing the plastic crisis, yet they continue to invest in false solutions while teaming up with oil companies to produce even more plastic. To stop this mess and combat climate change, multinationals like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé must end their addiction to single-use plastic packaging and move away from fossil fuels."
Of course, McDonald's is another big food brand that has been embroiled in controversy over greenwashing. In 2018, the fast-food giant rolled out paper straws, replacing its plastic straws to help save the planet. However, the paper straws were not, in fact, recyclable, and even if they could have been processed, the company still uses plastic in the rest of their cups.
This brings us to the topic of big meat. As the plant-based revolution takes hold, with soya, seitan and tofu substitutes rising in popularity, fast-food chains have taken note. Burger King, KFC, McDonald's, Subway and Taco Bell are just some of the big food chains that have introduced plant-based alternatives to their menus. From the Impossible Whopper to KFC's vegan chicken burger, fast-food chains are trying to beef up the appearance of their sustainability practices.
In Germany this month, Burger King even launched its first meat-free outlet. Yet, once again, this push towards plant-based, appears to be another example of greenwashing. Just a few years ago, in 2019, it was uncovered that Burger King, McDonald's and other big fast-food chains were supplied with meat from illegal deforestation areas in the Amazon Forest.
The introduction of plant-based products also doesn't mean that these chains are doing anything to reduce the number of meat products they offer. McDonald's, for example, by its own admission, is still one of the world's biggest buyers of beef, and as many of you will know, beef production has a huge environmental footprint.
Speaking to Vice about big brands' going green', Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, said: "[Meat companies] are meeting the market, but they are not addressing climate change." She added: "Let's just be clear about that: They are not slashing their greenhouse gas emissions—in fact, they continue to grow because they're expanding their operations in the meat sector."
Of course, true food sustainability involves prioritising the conservation of water and natural resources, energy efficiency, and animal welfare. So, in many cases, it appears that big brands are failing to deliver on their so-called 'green' promise.
Can smaller, sustainable brands thrive?
Despite the marketing efforts of big brands, consumers are catching on to greenwashing. A study by GlobalWebIndex found that while big brands such as Starbucks have made pledges regarding sustainability, a mere 43% of consumers believe that these pledges are achievable.
On top of this, another study found that 68% of online consumers in the US and UK are likely to stop using a brand due to "poor" or "misleading" Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) messages. Meanwhile, 84% said a "poor environmental track record" could stop them from using a brand, and nearly half were willing to pay premiums for "socially-conscious" or "environmentally-friendly brands."
This, of course, shows that genuine sustainability is a high priority for consumers, and that's great news for smaller food brands that have this philosophy at the core of their business. Increasingly, buyers are turning to smaller food brands, viewing them as more trustworthy and authentic, a trend that was accelerated by the pandemic. A 2020 study even found that these days, consumers are four to six times more likely to purchase, protect, and champion brands with a strong 'purpose'.
This is especially true for the younger generation who have the power to shape the future of shopping. Research shows that Millenial and Gen Z consumers are 1.6 times more likely to purchase products from 'challenger' brands than other shoppers, in comparison to the 'average consumer'.
Despite this, it can feel challenging for smaller food brands to compete against the titans of the food industry. After all, most smaller brands don't have big marketing budgets to inflate their ethical credentials. Artos Marketplace can help here. We offer smaller food brands the infrastructure and reach they need to share their true ethical brand story and get the kind of exposure they deserve.
If you have any questions regarding Artos Marketplace, or you'd like to discuss a challenge faced by your food wholesaler business, schedule a quick call with us today.