Greenwashing in Grocery Store Aisles

Grocery store aisle | Source: TCD
Grocery store aisle | Source: TCD

The grocery store is a space in which we find ourselves all victims to the power of language more than ever. Words matter. If a package has the word natural, it automatically, and sometimes even subconsciously, triggers other words in a consumer’s mind like healthy, good for you, or organic.

These words are often called “trigger words” or “power words” in the marketing sphere and have been used and abused to draw in and maintain loyal consumers. The design of trigger words is to hook the consumer and manipulate them into believing that the given product is the better choice amongst the competitors.

Even though natural on a label doesn’t mean healthy, good for you, or organic, the consumers’ hope that it might or misinformed notion that it does is enough for a company to make a sale, and achieve their goal. 

Greenwashing can mean many things, but at its core it is a company misleading their consumers into believing that their companies practices are more sustainable than they actually are through unsubstantiated claims or terminology; another means for greenwashing occurs when companies put emphasis on specific sustainable elements of product to conceal involvements in other environmentally degrading investments or practices.

Greenwashing exists virtually everywhere: brand mission statements, fossil fuel companies, clothing companies, and even hotels, but the place where we are faced most with greenwashing every day is the grocery store aisle. Making choices about food is influenced by everything from labels, packages, logos, and price, and greenwashing can be successful in all of these formats. 

The term greenwashing was first coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986 in an essay which referenced a hotel policy that required reusing towels to “save the environment” to distract and console distressed guests.

However, the truth was that the policy was only introduced to reduce laundry costs. The hotel was not making any attempt to address the larger problem by investing in renewable energy and reducing its climate footprint.

Since its original conception, greenwashing has expanded into most industries as a result of increasing pressures and demands from activists, climate scientists, and policy makers. Understanding greenwashing and its origins is the first step to noticing and understanding where it appears, why it appears, and why it is important to fight against practices that are just for show. 

Products that have been greenwashed | Source: Keep Knoxville Beautiful

More recently in 2021, Coca-cola was sued for misleading information and advertising about their environmental practices and climate impacts. Coca-cola is the number one producer of plastic waste in the world and was named number one corporate polluter by a nonprofit called Break Free from Plastic’s Global Cleanup and Brand Audit report.

Coca-cola is full of empty promises and bold language that has little action to follow through. One example of this is Coca-cola signing a pledge called the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment which says that they will have 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable plastic by 2025. Since singing this in 2018, there is no evidence of progress in achieving this goal.

Coca-cola uses the catchy tagline “a world without waste” and claims that “our planet matters” in promotional material, which are classic examples of greenwashing. 

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According to this GreenPrint study from 2021, 73% of customers consider the sustainability of a brand or product before buying it. Concern about the environment is continuing to spread, which only motivates brands more to begin or continue greenwashing to maintain sales. In response to this, it is important to become a more critical consumer.

One strategy to combat this is to become familiar with common buzzwords or marketing “trigger words” like: natural, eco-friendly, sustainable, non-GMO, organic, local, net zero, biodegradable, carbon neutral, clean, non-toxic, compostable, pure, healthy, green, plant-based, and so many more.

This is not to say that these words are never true, but it is essential to not immediately accept them as fact and to do appropriate research and read the smaller labels on the back or side. Generally speaking, Third-Party certifications like USDA Organic are safe to trust and are good indicators that a product is actually organic. In the grocery store, it is best to tread with caution to decipher the truth from exaggeration. 

Not every claim a brand makes about their environmental impact is greenwashing, but according to the Harvard Business Review, 42% of green statements and labels are “exaggerated, false, or deceptive.” Appropriate caution must be taken to combat these efforts, and armed with the information, we are all equipped to take this action. 


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