And, as Nielsen.com points out, “it’s no longer just wealthy suburbanites in major markets willing to open their wallets for sustainable offerings. Consumers across regions, income levels, and categories are willing to pay more, if doing so ensures they remain loyal to their values. Sustainability sentiment is particularly consistent across income levels.”
Plus, Millennials are especially willing to pay extra, with 73% of them of them supporting sustainable offerings, a figure up from about 50% in 2014. Gen Z is also chiming in with strong support, with 72% of them willing to contribute more to achieve sustainability.
The dark side of the equation? Greenwashing food, also known as nutriwashing.
For our purposes, we’ll use the greenwashing definition provided by Cambridge Dictionary: “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”
So, how did we get from consumers increasingly demanding an environmentally-friendly food production industry to the greenwashing done by some brands today? Here’s a quick look back in time.
On April 22, 1970, people in the United States celebrated the first annual Earth Day as part of a growing political and societal movement to put emphasis on concerns about the environment. Since that time, increasing numbers of companies and brands have been using eco-forward messages in their marketing, including on their packaging. In fact, many companies began actually using the color green in packaging to associate themselves with the environmental movement.
The problem arises when production methods and/or nutrients found in the food don’t measure up to the marketing—thus, the greenwashing movement. Greenwashing doesn’t only take place in the world of food, of course, As far back as 1969, public utility companies were said to spend eight times the amount of money on advertising where they promoted green practices than what they spent on the anti-pollution research they were describing in those ads.
For the rest of our post, though, we’ll focus on greenwashing food, including in agriculture and restaurants; and, when the concept of green is used to promote better health or nutrition, it has also been called nutriwashing. We have no intention of calling out specific brands in our post—although we do recommend that you do your own research if nutriwashing concerns you—but, here’s a perfect example.
Think of a popular junk food or sugary beverage, one that’s virtually empty in nutritional value. Watch or listen to some of their commercials, and they might quickly have you half-convinced that their products are brimming with vitamins and minerals. These commercial include, but definitely aren’t limited to, those featuring breakfast cereals, soft drinks, processed lunch meats, and much, much more.
Here’s how one nutrition expert summed it up. “A single portion of junk food is better than a large portion of junk food, but it’s not better than an apple, a peach or a vegetable.”
We’re going to do one more deep-dive into the negatives of a greenwashing marketing strategy, and then talk about a much better way.
The word “sin” isn’t used much in modern-day lingo, but it’s just the right word for greenwashing. And, in a study of North American products, more than 98 percent of the marketing teams committed one or more of the original sixth sins, after which a seventh one was added to the list.
The list includes:
Sin of the Hidden Trade-off, where a marketer would suggest a product is green, based upon certain attributes, without looking at the big picture
Sin of No Proof, which means that the claim hasn’t been substantiated
Sin of Vagueness, which can include a claim of “all natural”; sure, that sounds great but, as the report mentions, arsenic is also natural, and you wouldn’t want that for breakfast
Sin of Irrelevance, which is a claim that could be truthful, but isn’t important in the quest for sustainable products
Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, which is committed when one pro-green truth still does not make the product a good idea
Sin of Fibbing, which is when a marketer just plain lies; the good news is this one was found to be committed least often
The seventh sin, added later, is the Sin of Worshipping False Labels.
So, that’s the situation we’re faced with. What do we do about it? As a consumer, here are tips on how to avoid being taken in by greenwashing. Here are more tips. And some more. And even more, after that.
But, what about professionals in the world of food? What can and should we do?
We can’t fix what we don’t address. Fortunately, the opposite is also true. To make positive change happen in the food industry, we can gather together with other people who are equally as passionate about the future of food to discuss—and sure, even debate—solutions.
At Roots 2018, we were blessed to have the amazing Andrew Zimmern as our keynote speaker, where he talked about how greenwashing products with unfounded claims is one of today’s most pressing future-of-food topics to solve.
Zimmern is a four-time James Beard Award-winning TV personality, chef, writer and teacher, as well as an anthropologist, social justice advocate and global thought leader—and here’s more of what he had to say at Roots 2018.
Yes, gathering together to discuss solutions is key. Here are two more ideas to consider.
Compare what we’ve just discussed about greenwashing with elements of the farm to table, or farm to fork, movement:
chefs know where their food comes from in a way that’s pretty specific, rather than just, for example, “from the United States”
they know how the produce is grown (sustainably, for example, without pesticides)
the middleman is cut out, and the restaurant gets the food directly from the farm
the farm grows the food in line with a restaurant’s values
Another key element of farm to table is relationship, of connecting with the people who grow your food. To quote Rutgers, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the “goal is to develop relationships between stakeholders in a food system,” such as ‘farmers, processors, retailers, restauranteurs, consumers’ and more.”
Rutgers brings up another important issues, and that’s how to reduce the “environmental impact of transporting ingredients across states or countries.”
That kind of environmental impact is too often defined by miles traveled, but we’d like to ask you to consider a different perspective about the buy local food movement; here is plenty of information on that topic from Roots, along with accompanying videos.
For now, here are two highlights:
“local” is the most bastardized term since “organic”
local = great simply doesn’t hold true—and doesn’t even mean that the food is being grown locally
To illustrate bullet point number one, here’s a story shared by Farmer Lee Jones after an upstate New York customer revealed how he could no longer buy product from The Chef’s Garden because he needed to buy locally. In this case, the term was being defined geographically and, if the customer didn’t comply, he’d lose his job. So, Lee told him to protect his job, absolutely—and then, when Lee was in New York, he visited him.
During the visit, Lee asked for and received permission to browse through the cooler, full of items purchased from the “local purveyors.” And, a quick examination revealed:
haricot verts from Guatemala
cherry tomatoes from New Zealand
fruit from somewhere else entirely
In reality, the move to this purveyor expanded the man’s carbon footprint by 3,000 times, despite intentions to make produce-purchasing more environmentally friendly.
Also at Roots, Catherine Golding, the North America Business Development Manager of Meat & Livestock Australia, shared research from scientists from The University of Toowoomba, The University of Arkansas, and the Queensland University of Technology that might really surprise you. Conclusions show how transporting food is NOT the biggest contribution to the carbon footprint, or energy or water use in a product lifecycle.
In fact, more than 95 percent of this activity takes place on the farms and processing plants before the food even begins to be shipped.
What matters, in short, then, is HOW the food is grown, not where.
At The Chef’s Garden, we are 100 percent committed to sustainable farming techniques. In fact, it’s at the heart and soul of what we do to provide the chefs we serve with the most nutritionally dense fresh vegetables possible, products of unrivaled quality and flavor.
As we segue to our next topic in this post, that of zero-waste kitchens, here’s another comment by Rutgers. The “core idea here is that farm to table food systems exist in a way that doesn’t stifle ‘the ability of future generations to meet their own food needs,’ meaning that it doesn’t destroy resources in the process.”
Once food is sustainably grown, then what? How can we treat quality food as the treasure it really is? At The Culinary Vegetable Institute, our executive chef, Jamie Simpson, could be the poster boy for minimal waste. That’s how passionate he is about the intentional, conscientious strategy to be a good steward of the environment.
For Jamie, and for The Culinary Vegetable Institute and The Chef’s Garden, zero waste is not a trend, one to be discarded when the next shiny object is spotted. It is how we operate.
And, here’s just some of what Jamie has to say on the subject:
“We have several lines of defense before anything is garbage. First, is it recyclable? Then, obviously, we’ll recycle it. Is this container usable for something else, long term? Okay, that’s an easy solution for a usable container. You look at food waste, ask is this edible? Is it delicious? That, then, goes back to guests in some way. Is it nutritious, say, for pigs? Then it’s going to go to the pigs. Is it compostable? And then, if it’s none of those things, it’s garbage. Which is nothing. If you’re at home, or if you’re a small restaurant with a real tight staff, or even a big restaurant, and you take just a single item, one waste item, and you explore the practical applications with that item ─ that’s where the CVI’s strengths are.”
One of the ways the Culinary Vegetable Institute maintains its environmentally-friendly processes is through farm stock. Where it began, no one really remembers anymore. But, that’s okay. As that initial supply of stock got lower, we simply added in vegetable or animal scraps that needed a home. This stock is never thrown out. Instead, it is continually transformed into something altogether new and wonderful.
If the chefs taste the stock and realize it needs more carrots, then more carrots are added. If more garlic is needed, then the same answer applies. They add more garlic. This revolving stock is always carefully tended at temperatures to prevent food safety problems, and is then used to flavor sauces and soups, for cooking rice, poaching farm-fresh vegetables, and so much more.
That’s how, to borrow a phrase from Culinary Vegetable Institute Chef Tristan Acevedo, we ride the wave. You have a product, which becomes another product, which is transformed to something else entirely. But, to become that something else you had to get something else to make it something else, and now you have overage of that something else. There’s this constant evolution that just doesn’t end. There’s never no inventory. And inventory is always becoming more inventory as long as you stick to those principles of what else? Or now, what?”
As a final insight, Culinary Vegetable Institute chefs have found that the very best zero-waste kitchen solution is as follows: “Go through your refrigerator and look at your inventory. Know who you’re cooking for. In restaurants it’s the only way to operate. You place orders based on inventory. The entire system operates on that, ideally.”
If what we’ve said resonates with you, we invite you to choose our sustainably farmed fresh vegetables, edible flowers, microgreens, herbs and more.
The Chef’s Garden has always been committed to sustainable agricultural practices and, in the past thirty years, we’ve never wavered from our commitment to farming that is environmentally friendly, socially responsible and economically viable. Serving products that are sustainably farmed by The Chef’s Garden demonstrates your commitment to the environment and to the health and well-being of future generations.
So, come on! Join us.