“All Natural” Food

For this example, I’m defining greenwashing as a business misleading its consumer base about the environmental benefits of its product in a way that increases their profit. Essentially it’s false marketing targeting the growing population of people who want to buy things that make them feel like they’re making a positive difference particularly where the environment is concerned. The concept I’ll be critiquing is food labels that purport the product to be “all natural,” a term that, despite being named the most popular claim used on labels by the Shelton Group, has no universal or regulated meaning. The “all natural” label is effective because it means different things to different people – it appeals to a diverse group of people. The USDA, which only regulates meat, defines natural as a product that contains “no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” The natural label on meat speaks only to what is done (or rather, isn’t done) to the meat after the animal is killed; it doesn’t take into account how the animal was raised prior to slaughter (what it was fed, what it was injected with, etc). The natural label becomes even more ambiguous when applied to non-meat products as then it essentially means nothing at all. This is great news for companies looking to appeal to consumers’ ethical concerns without actually doing anything differently which is why this is a quintessential example of greenwashing.

The most obvious takeaway from this is that there should be more regulation concerning food, or any other product, labels. Ideally, people should also do more research about what they buy and who they buy from but of course if people had been doing that from the beginning the “all natural” label would never have been such a successful bit of marketing. If companies were required to accurately label their products and not allowed to use meaningless labels, it would be easier for people to make more informed choices about what they buy. Regulation is the only solution to this problem that would actually work in practice. The problem is that this goes against the interests of corporations and it is difficult to get anything progressive done in America if it threatens corporate interests. This heavily ties into C. Wright Mills concept of the power elite vs the powerless, complacent citizen. Making this solution a reality would require a cultural transformation – people would need to be more informed, involved, and vocal about regulating our food and food labels, for one. I think if this cultural transformation were to happen, everything else would be forced to change. Alas, this is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

-Anna Boutchard


What the Organic Label Really Means

Although when the USDA originally created the organic seal in October of 2002 the intentions were pure, due to marketing and uninformed consumers, the label has taken on a life of its own. Upon spotting an organic seal on a package of strawberries in the super market, most consumers believe this product is safer, better for the environment and healthier opposed to the strawberries sitting beside them lacking the label. Organic, by most consumers’ definitions, has evolved into a cure-all, ethical, and environmentally friendly option. Consumers assume “organic” means chemical free, more nutritious, environmentally friendly, and hormone free. It’s become a romanticized back-to-nature obsession for those who can afford the label.

“People believe it must be better for you if it’s organic,” says Phil Howard, an assistant professor of community, food and agriculture at Michigan State University.

It’s not completely the consumers’ fault most define “organic” by these standards. Large companies that came out with organic lines of their products after it started becoming popular, Driscoll’s for example have run with this preconceived definition the consumer created for organic. Often using comforting words like natural and nurture alongside “organic” the consumer associated the definitions. As defined by the USDA, “Organic agriculture produces products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics.” ((Full Definition Here)) There are exceptions to the basic rule of not using synthetic materials, and the list of approved synthetic chemicals can be found here. USDA Approved ChemicalsI’m not arguing that the lack of conventional pesticides on produce is a bad thing, but I am pointing out that organic does not mean chemical free.
Secondly, it is not taken into account by the consumer the carbon footprint created by shipping organic strawberries from south America verse the much smaller footprint created by purchasing local sustainably grown berries. Driscoll’s produces majority of “organic” strawberries seen in the super market. For 8 months out of the year, Driscoll’s is sourcing their organic berries from “Central Mexico”. Although it is not directly Driscoll’s fault for the lack of informed consumer’s, from a marketing standpoint they have embraced the assumed definition of organic, allowing the customer to dismiss the fact that their berries are from thousands of miles away and dismissing the fact that outsourcing for produce greatly increases ones carbon footprint. By food traveling large distances, by planes, trains, trucks, and ships, the pollution is contributing to global warming and unhealthy air quality. Today, the typical American prepared meal contains, on average, ingredients from at least five countries outside the United States. Imports by airplane have a substantial impact on global warming pollution. In 2005, the import of fruits, nuts, and vegetables into California by airplane released more than 70,000 tons of CO2, which is equivalent to more than 12,000 cars on the road. (National Resource Defense Council) I am not dismissing the organic produce market or claiming that conventional produce is better for you, but I am claiming that when making the decision to buy organic imported produce verse local sustainably grown produce, the local produce is most likely less daunting on the environment.
Choosing local produce supports your community and reduces fuel consumption and pollution associated with transporting food all by eating food directly from a farmer. Although not all local growers may be organic, because they are growing on a small scale many utilize many organic practices and grow using sustainable practices. Farmer’s markets are a great resource to find local food and connect directly with growers. As food trade has greatly increased with population increase, you can make an impact by choosing food grown closer to home.