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Special edition: Sustainability

Locating the line between green and greenwash

By Jess Halliday , 17-Sep-2008
Last updated the 17-Sep-2008 at 14:45 GMT

In the second in our special series on sustainability, FoodNavigator considers how far a company should go in making green sourcing claims, if it is not able to ensure that every ingredient and production process is as green as can be.

Greenwashing has entered common parlance to describe environmental credentials highlighted for a company or product that are unfounded or irrelevant. When sustainability is over-egged through ignorance or over-enthusiasm, it actually risks damaging trust in the brand.

But food products are made up of any number of ingredients. Should a company and its suppliers be able to trace every single one of these back to a sustainable source, in order for the product to make sustainability claims?

Sustainable in the main

Solitaire Townsend, chief executive of Futerra, a UK-based sustainability communications agency, recognises that it is almost impossible to get 100 per cent sustainable, ethical, fair trade or organic ingredients into a product.

She told FoodNavigator.com that if the main element of a foodstuff is sustainably and ethically sourced – and is third-party accredited – then it is fine to talk about it on product packs and marketing materials.

An example of this would be the cocoa in a chocolate bar or in a chocolate cake.

If the product is a chilli source, on the other hand, and the chocolate is one tiny part of the formulation, then the chocolate’s sustainable credentials have no place on the pack or in marketing materials that influence purchasing decisions. They may, however, be listed on support materials that do not influence decisions, such as on a website, in the interests of transparency.

The same model applies to companies operating in the business-to-business sphere. For instance, if an ingredients supplier is selling a product of which the main element is sustainably-sourced, then it “should get out there and tell people”.

But if that ingredient then ends up as 0.0003 per cent of a lasagne, then it should not be used as the sole basis for green claims on the finished product.

Transparent reporting

In its Sustainability Reporting Guidelines, the GRI says: “All organisations (public, private, or non-profit) are encouraged to report against the guidelines, whether they are beginners or experienced reporters, and regardless of their size, sector or location”.

It stresses that reporting can take a number of different forms – not just annual or financial results – such as web or print publications.

While there is no doubt that companies are taking on board the need to clean up their act, is it unrealistic to expect everyone to be a shining example of sustainability in every aspect?

Townsend thinks not – but believes it is essential to report the bad news along with the good.

“If you don’t put your hand up to the less good, then what are you doing reporting in the first place? It is just positive PR, not transparency. There are a lot of better ways to spend PR money than on a puff report that no-one is going to read.

“Every honest admission you make increases trust.”

Few companies outside the FTSE 100 are aware of this benefit, however; indeed, it is anti-intuitive. But according to Townsend, once they do realise the benefits they never go back to good news only approach.

She said it is “perfect” for companies to say ‘we’re working on it’ when they do flag less-good practices or processes – but they must be prepared to answer questions on what exactly their plans are and when the next steps will be taken.

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