It's Too Easy Being Green

How current food greenwashing feeds profits not preservation.

By Shannon Rupp 3 Jul 2007 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Whole Foods: whole paycheque?

With apologies to Kermit, it's just too easy being green. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that it's just too easy paying lip service to being green.

Nothing hits home the way greenwashing undermines the environmental movement like a trip to Capers Markets, the "natural" food store chain owned by the Boulder, Colorado-based Wild Oats Markets that recently announced a proposed merger[*] with the Texas-based Whole Foods chain. (Wild Oats has 110 stores across the U.S. and Canada and annual sales of about $1.2 billion. The Whole Foods chain, which has about 200 stores in the U.S. as well as outlets in Canada and the U.K., is a Fortune 500 company that did $5.6 billion in sales in 2006.)

Let's leave aside my reason for being there -- a truly amazing supply of superior imported junk food including my favourite root vegetable chips -- and consider the organic carrot soup.

It's mystifying. The roughly two-bowls' worth of soup, in a metallic envelope, is imported from New Zealand.

Why? Are there no organic carrots grown in the Pacific Northwest? How about North America? Is there some genius-of-a-chef in New Zealand cornering the soup market? And how does it get here? In tankers? The label said it was packaged in Ontario, and all I could think was that some smarty-boots in the oil industry had found a resale market for those single-tank oil carriers that were prone to major spills.

On the plus side, we won't have to worry about the environmental impact of a carrot soup disaster.

But the biggest question of all is: just how the hell do these people have the nerve to market themselves as "sustainable?" To be fair, Capers isn't the only food fair doing this, but it's the loudest and the most self-righteous, and that sort of blatant hypocrisy is always eye-catching.

Sustainable hand washing

While "sustainable" has no real definition -- like other marketing buzzwords, it allows consumers to make inferences that benefit the seller -- it implies a kind of environmental sensitivity that includes producing food locally, limiting the carbon footprint, buying from small, environmentally-sensitive farmers, yada, yada, yada.

So what, exactly, is sustainable about Capers's freezers full of processed frozen foods trucked in from places like Amy's Kitchen in California? Capers has a dandy selection of soft drinks sure to make any tea-totaller's heart race, including non-alchoholic wines and beers, herbal drinks and a dizzying array of fruit-flavoured spritzers. Of course they're imported from all over hell's half-acre. And how sustainable is it to import my favourite licorice from Finland -- not that I'm objecting. Well not to the availability of the licorice, anyway.

I'm a fan of Capers for everything other than what my mother would have called proper food. But as someone who has a thing about food-born illness, Capers's generally shoddy merchandising habits, which include the astounding number of dairy products I've found on the shelf long past best buy dates, means that most of their offerings make me twitch. I've skipped their takeout ever since they had that Hepatitis A outbreak in 2002, specifically because I think it was a direct result of their cynical marketing. The culture of smugness that these all-style-no-substance types seem to cultivate, leaves them believing their shit don't stink, which I suspect is what led them to think it's not necessary to wash it off their hands.

And before you ask why I continue to shop at a place that seems to have such contempt for its customers, have I mentioned the cream soda made with real vanilla?

It's all Newspeak to me

As propaganda goes, sustainability is probably no more offensive than, say, "wellness." (Although, while we're on the subject, what does that one mean? I've seen it applied to astrology, fergawdsake.)

I've been amused watching as a term that once popped out of the mouths of captains of oh-so-dubious industries has evolved into a favourite buzzword of those who swore to shut-down the eco-rape-and-pillage crowd. I first heard "sustainable development" in the 1980s, when CEOs faced with hard science that current industrial models would get our species killed argued that they were weren't enviro-outlaws because they practised "sustainable development" -- like tree farms.

One reporter I recall staunchly refused to quote the term on the grounds that it was just so Orwellian. "Sustainable development: now there's an oxymoron -- it's classic double-think," she snapped, referring to the name Orwell's 1984 gives to propaganda that requires people to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

I was reminded of her astute observation that Orwell's Newspeak had become business-as-usual when I read the news release about the merger of those sustainable grocery empires that own Capers.

"Our companies have similar missions and core values, and we believe the synergies gained from this combination will create long-term value for our customers, vendors and shareholders as well as exciting opportunities for our new and existing team members," said John Mackey, chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Whole Foods Market.

It's not all bad: at least my yam chip supply is safe.

Yuppy chow undermines real eco-goals

Finally, the academics are on to these people. The Globe and Mail reported that a PhD candidate in communications and culture at York University has hard research confirming that what we lowly hacks observed: fashionable greenwashing is co-opting the vague language of the environmental movement to undermine its concrete goals.

In a paper delivered to the 2007 Congress of Humanities and Socials Science, Irena Knezevic came to the conclusion that much of the so-called organic food is little more than "yuppy chow" for the privileged that is increasingly packaged with as little concern for the environment as other food factory products. That could be because major organic brands have been bought by corporate parents like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Kraft, and are delivered by the same sort of corporate food retailers that brought us processed cheese-foods.

"Most of the organic food supply in Canada travels to consumers from California and includes convenience foods like individual-sized and single-serving granola bars. Transportation and packaging involved result in environmental consequences comparable to those of conventional food production," Knezevic told the Globe.

She writes that, in Canada, the organic industry is growing by 15 to 20 per cent, annually, no doubt because of consumers' willingness to pay top dollar for products that have been green-washed. The government is proposing organic labelling for foods produced sans pesticides, probably because there's such good business in the name.

But consumers who are concerned with related issues such as the environmental impact of food manufacturing, shipping, and packaging, farmers' compensation, working conditions for farm labourers, and factory-farming problems like e.Coli infected produce, won't find answers to their questions on the marketing stickers.

Of course the consumer smugness generated when shelling out for anything labeled organic, will still be, as the ads say, priceless.

Furriers in bamboo clothing

"Organic foods have less and less to do with the ethics of environmentalism, anti-globalization and social justice, indeed less to do with organic agriculture as a concept, but more and more with hip consumerism, cultural and economic capital and the moral pedestals of those who have the luxury to make such purchasing choices," Knezevic wrote.

What is being created, she told the Globe, is "a system in which organic products are more and more removed from the actual problems with food production and incorporated into the dominant agricultural model. The core problems of the global food system, mainly distancing, remain unaddressed."

This should come as no surprise to Capers fans who, I desperately need to believe, always knew they were flirting with a furrier in bamboo clothing. The mere thought that anyone of voting age might be gullible enough to believe that such a prodigious purveyor of junk food was environmentally sensitive leads me to nightmares of the "we're all doomed" variety.

Come to think of it, I suppose that's some of what the Green Party is banking on -– that the same consumers who are seduced by Capers and the like can be duped into voting for them.

In the 21st century, "Green" has become shorthand for "virtuous," much the way "Christian" was the mantle 19th century hucksters donned to con the masses. I suppose that means we can expect to hear more and more people threatening us with brimstone and hell fire -- or, in this case, global warming -- if we don't buy into whatever it is they're selling. Preferably without looking too closely at what it is they actually do.[*]

Oh well, at least I'll be able to toast the apocalypse with a fine Californian apple cider.

*Correction: Wild Oats Markets and Whole Foods have recently announced a proposed merger (reported on this line). The U.S. Federal Trade Commission applied for an injunction to block the merger.
*Correction: At 12 p.m. on July 4, we changed the two paragraphs before this asterisk.

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