Greenwashing: the misrepresentation of information
Profit-driven companies use labeling to present an image of sustainability and animal welfare that their products do not always live up to.
Animal welfare certificate for food products
Editor and spellchecker - Press officer and spokesperson for Equalia
June 14 2022
It is common to find all kinds of labels and certificates on the packaging of the products we buy in our shopping basket. Until now, references to sustainability have been common, starting with the reduction of plastic packaging. For some time now, new messages, seals and certificates relating to animal welfare have been coming up. These seals come both from companies in the food sector and from certifying companies, both of which belong to the for-profit sector. One of our lines of work at Equalia, a non-profit organization, is to analyse the living conditions of food animals and to propose the best animal welfare standards, based on current scientific knowledge.
To establish these advances, we are part of international alliances that standardize criteria to request the same standards in all countries from multinational food companies. Therefore, Equalia's work is fundamental to evaluate seals, certificates and advertising messages that proclaim good animal welfare, acting outside corporate interests.
What is greenwashing?
The use of these labels by companies with profit-making interests is called greenwashing: "a form of marketing adopted by certain companies in which they claim to have made an environmental commitment, either in the way the company operates itself, in the relationships it establishes with third parties or in the products or services it provides, without having introduced significant changes in its environmental policies (1)".
"Equalia's work is instrumental in assessing seals, certificates and advertising messages proclaiming good animal welfare, acting outside corporate interests"
Definition of greenwashing and origin of the term
This concept is not current, but dates back to 1983 in the Fiji Islands. Jay Westerveld, a university student, coined it when he was surfing on those beaches. Jay needed a clean towel and wandered into the most exclusive hotel on a private beach. He was struck by the resort's sign on the towels: "Save our planet. Thousands of litres of water are used every day to wash towels used only once. You choose: a towel on the towel rack says "I'll use it again". A towel on the floor means "Please replace it". Thank you for helping us to conserve the vital resources of planet Earth". This slogan clashed with the company's expansion into what is today an island resort, much more damaging to the environment than washing its towels. Recalling this fact, Westerveld wrote an article where he used, for the first time, the term greenwashing to explain this contradiction.
Although the word emerged in 1983, such (green) image-washing practices have been going on since the 1960s in energy companies. The pioneer was the oil company Chevron and its People Do advertising campaign.
In 1962, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring was published, exposing the harmful ecological impact of the massive use of agricultural pesticides such as dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane (DDT). This manifesto was intended to mobilize the government and awaken the public. And it succeeded, causing such a stir that civil mobilisations took place in the following years, leading to the first Earth Day in April 1970. It also led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which banned the use of DDT in the US in 1972.
"These (green) image-washing practices have been going on since the 1960s in energy companies"
The Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), fearful of the risk this book could cause to their corporate image, hired publicist E. Bruce Harrison, an environmental information specialist. Harrison brought together the major companies in the industry - Monsanto, Dow, DuPont, Shell and others - and devised a marketing strategy to counter the arguments of Silent Spring. Such was his success in cleaning up the image of these companies that his environmental advertising techniques are still used in the industry. For example, appealing to consumer emotion; exposing scientific misinformation; the hiring of "objective" scientists in favor of agrochemicals, etc.
Greenwashing in everyday life
The concept of greenwashing is highly topical nowadays. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), promoted by the United Nations (UN) and incorporated in Europe and Spain through the 2030 Agenda, are global goals adopted by world leaders in 2015 to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for citizens. For companies, the SDGs constitute the international framework for contributing to sustainable development and provide them with a guide to establish their roadmaps for shaping their strategies around the goals on which they have the capacity to influence. Against this backdrop, some investors and shareholders have expressed concern about possible "greenwashing" by companies that cannot meet the deadline set for these goals. A fear that has been expressed by the Governor of the Banco de España (Bank of Spain), Pablo Hernández de Cos, and which the European Parliament intends to regulate in financial matters in its Regulation 2020/852, point 11: "...to create visibility and allay fears about greenwashing. In the context of this Regulation, greenwashing refers to the practice of gaining an unfair competitive advantage by marketing a financial product as environmentally friendly when it does not meet basic environmental requirements (2)".
On the other side are consumers, who have expressed their concern for sustainability and the environment, as well as their desire for companies to help them maintain the new habits they are acquiring.
The urgency of these contexts has led many companies, including those in the food sector, to use labeling as a more direct and effective means of giving a "green" image and, at the same time, of confusing consumers through the use of images and colors related to nature; the indiscriminate inclusion of labels and symbols that resemble official ones; or self-declared labels, which are invented by the company itself.
Faced with the proliferation of these eco-labels, the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU) conducted a survey in early 2022 on the awareness and trust of green labels. The results confirmed that consumers are mostly concerned about the environment, to the extent that they are willing to pay an increase in the price of a product if it has a verified certificate. At the same time, they highlight misinformation: only 5% said they were well informed about the requirements for a product to be labeled as sustainable.
"Many companies, including those in the food sector, use labeling as the most direct and effective way to present a "green" image"
Common label on egg packaging
Greenwashing in animal welfare: humane-washing
In the context of greenwashing and misrepresentation of information by companies through labeling, more and more food products are trying to put on a positive animal welfare face that they do not have. This is known as humane-washing, the dissonance between food's advertising messages and the low welfare standards of the animals used in the production process.
The key issue is the information provided to the consumer. From a legal point of view, if the consumer is sufficiently informed, then a misleading advertisement will not affect his or her judgment and economic behavior. The consumer must be able to act as an arbiter in the marketplace through "free and informed (3)” decisions.
“More and more food products are trying to put on a positive animal welfare face that they do not have. This is known as humane-washing"
These misrepresented advertising messages can be of different kinds. They can be explicit, such as the use of "welfare seals", or literal expressions. But they can also be implicit, through images that convey an idea of animal welfare. These messages can be conveyed through a variety of channels, whether in TV commercials, on brand websites or on the packaging of the product in question.
One example that we encounter every day in the shopping basket is the packaging of eggs. The photos covering the product are, without exception, of free-range hens. If we take a closer look at the code on the eggs, we see that not all of them are produced by cage-free hens, as advertised on the packaging. Paradoxically, they make use of the images of a cage-free farming system that is widely supported by the European public.
Citizens' views on the labeling of the products they consume
Between April 2021 and February 2022, the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety commissioned a group of experts to carry out a study on animal welfare labeling. The conclusions drawn are in line with recent consumer surveys on this issue. The low level of public awareness of the conditions under which animals are reared and the treatment of food-producing animals is evident. Confusion and lack of information about the meaning of labeling, caused by the number of different certificates in the country and in the EU, was also confirmed. This in turn contributes to competitive inequalities between distributors and retailers.
On specific animal welfare labeling, European citizens would support any future labeling initiative covering more than one animal species (e.g. poultry, cows, pigs); different production systems (e.g. free-range, organic); and dimensions that extend beyond farm life (e.g. humane slaughter). Consumers were also interested in information on antibiotic use, biodiversity, fair remuneration and carbon footprint.
"The confusion and lack of information on the meaning of labeling was confirmed.”
All in all, this study helped to gather evidence that could support any possible initiative on animal welfare labeling in the EU. There were also other challenges, such as competition between EU member countries, or the internal market regulations of each of these countries. All in all, what emerges from the study is that the public is calling for simple, common labeling in all countries, which objectively expresses the animal welfare conditions of products.
A highlight of the report is the statement by the survey participants that they would trust labeling schemes owned and managed by NGOs and public authorities in the EU more than if they were managed by national public authorities and/or food companies.
The work of organizations such as Equalia, based on the latest scientific research on animal welfare, can help food companies to move towards more rigorous controls and labeling. We hope that the will of companies will go in this direction in order to achieve products with transparent and understandable information for all consumers.
Possibilities for labeling regulation
This work extends to the European Union through Eurogroup for Animals, a lobby of non-governmental organizations, of which Equalia is also a member, working to improve European legislation on animal welfare. One of the points on their roadmap for 2022 is precisely the creation of a common animal welfare label for all member countries, which would also affect imported products. This would achieve the currently non-existent impartiality of certifying companies that work for their own benefit and for the benefit of the companies that hire them.
Other types of organizations, for example, those working for consumers' rights, such as FACUA, have demanded on numerous occasions that product labeling should provide consumers with all the necessary information, from the method of production to packaging.
"The work of organizations such as Equalia can help food companies to move towards more rigorous controls and labeling"
Food companies are aware of consumers' concerns about sustainability and animal welfare. Therefore, they demand labelling that provides clear, simple, and truthful information about the product they are buying. This is a fact that the industry cannot ignore and that must be tackled quickly, with the help of the advice offered by organisations such as Equalia, which is free from corporate interests and represents civil society.
Editor and spellchecker - Press officer and spokesperson for Equalia
1. Cristina Novillo, bióloga. https://www.ecologiaverde.com/greenwashing-que-es-como-funciona-y-ejemplos-2077.html
Itziar García Haro, Content creator
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