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.