Greenwashing: innocent or guilty?

For those days when the weather’s warm back in London (and yes, there are quite a few of them) I do enjoy a smoothie. If it can’t be made fresh, then there’s a good alternative in the drinks made by Innocent Smoothies.

Innocent has a great story. It was founded by three twenty-something guys who spent a weekend selling fruit smoothies from a stall at a music festival. They put up a sign asking their customers if they should give up their jobs to make the smoothies full-time. The fact that I’m writing this ten years later about what is now a $200m company will give you a clue about the answer they received.

Last week Innocent made headline news in the UK, accused of “greenwashing” because of a misleading marketing claim that incorrectly stated that all their drinks were made in the UK and that all fruit was transported by rail or by boat, rather than on more fuel-hungry trucks.

The Daily Telegraph (hardly Fox News, but about as conservative as you can get in the UK) gleefully reported that Innocent in fact mixes its drinks in Amsterdam and then ships them in tankers to be bottled in the UK.

The Telegraph reporters called Rising Tide, an activist environmental group that claims to be “taking action on the root causes of climate change.” That and liberally labeling companies as “greenwashing” on demand. The Telegraph quotes a spokesperson:

We are drowning in a sea of corporate greenwash. Even companies which are supposed to have the highest ethical standards are at it now and the major problem is that it encourages consumers to believe they do not have to make the changes that are necessary to combat global warming.

Here’s the thing about Innocent. This is not a company that screams “green” at you. If you visit their website, you won’t find grandiose claims on the homepage. In fact, you have to dig down into its page on company ethics before you can understand why this company is regarded by many moderate environmentalists as a shining light in sustainability. You can see for yourself on Innocent’s website or read on Treehugger about the work they were doing even in 2006.

So what happened here? Innocent claim this was just a mistake and that their website wasn’t updated when they changed their production method. One of the company’s founders, Richard Reed, told the Telegraph:

We are attempting to get the best quality drinks to our customers while generating the least amount of carbon…While it might sound strange, Rotterdam is the port which all the fruit comes into, so it makes sense to blend our drinks there.

We’ll return to this issue in later posts, but I do want to highlight what happened here. A company with an essentially great environmental pedigree has been caught making a mistake. A newspaper with traditionally high standards of journalism has called an extreme environmental organization and got exactly the quote it needed, containing the magic word “greenwashing” and is therefore able to report that environmentalists themselves have condemned Innocent’s actions.

I’m still not certain of exactly what greenwashing actually means, and we should perhaps take some time on this blog to explore the question more fully. But whatever it is, Innocent isn’t doing it. And no right-thinking environmentalist would think the opposite… just a fringe activist group and a right-wing newspaper.

Let’s all be a little more careful about how we use the word?

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  1. Micheal - August 13, 2008

    I’m about sick of the irresponsibility of the modern press. It’s no wonder more people read blogs every day instead of the mainstream news.

  2. Doug - August 13, 2008

    I don’t see anything off-base in the quote from Rising Tide; they do point out a legitimate problem, and don’t slander Innocent’, at least in the quote you provided. I don’t know anything about them, so I’ll have to take your word, Pete, that they are ‘extreme’. But that sounds like you are throwing a label right back at them. After reading your post, I now wonder not only what constitutes ‘greenwashing’, but what constitutes ‘extreme’. Please explain.

  3. Aaron - August 13, 2008

    Thoughtful comment Doug. I’m interested to see how Pete responds.

  4. Stephanie - August 13, 2008

    It seems pretty obvious that “Greenwashing” is the environmental equivalent of “whitewashing” or trying to cover up an unpleasant truth, the implication being that some businesses that claim to be eco-ethical may not always be telling the truth, or the whole truth. It sounds like a term a conservative, anti-environmetal media source would love to bandy about and level at any company that isn’t pristine in their promotion. If it’s a mistake and the Innocent company admitted it, they’ll correct it, and it will stand as a warning to all eco-businesses to keep their ethics and integrity in check or risk being labeled the worst kind of hypocrite.

  5. Pete - August 13, 2008

    @Doug, Aaron. So sure, it’s subjective. But I think groups that promote direct action can be regarded as extreme compared with the tens of millions that want real, modern-day solutions to climate change.
    Type the name into google or whatever you use and enjoy the description of Thomas Friedman’s thinking as “outrageous neoliberal capitalist propaganda”. Yup, I’m sticking with extreme.

  6. Pete - August 13, 2008

    @Stephanie. But is this fair? “Eco-business” doesn’t seem to me the right label for a company like Innocent. They’re a drinks company, just trying to do the right thing (and doing it well). Why should they be held to a higher standard than — say — Pepsi or Coke?

  7. Julian Cole - August 13, 2008

    … and today I heard on the BBC World Service that Shell has been officially reprimanded for false advertising in some of its “we are green” commercials. There is indeed a real criterion for what “greenwashing” is: false or exaggerated claims about improvements in environmental impact. But of course, we don’t expect the Telegraph and the rest of the corporate media to go after Shell, do we?

  8. Jason Neve - August 13, 2008

    I wouldn’t attack Innocent, but really, the term “Greenwashing” means total transparency within your supply chain and operations…. it means that you are telling the truth, and that none of the information that you put out there is untrue or in some way misleading. I understand that a small or medium sized company may not update their website as often as they could, but a $200m company certainly has the capacity to update their website, when they make a major change to their operations. This is a case of Greenwashing, whether deliberate or not, whether made by a company that is green most of the time, or one that is an evil polluter and abuser; that is just the way it is….. Being responsible means telling the truth. Greenwashing means making claims about how good you are for the planet, that are not true.
    But, its way more complicated. Innocent’s new practice is actually more environmentally friendly, but if they are not telling their customers that their product is now made in Rotterdam, they are withholding information from their customers…..
    Most people reading this article hold the companies that they support to a higher standard. it is up to Innocent whether they want to sell to this category of the market or not. If they do, they’ll need to be more detail oriented. Most companies don’t pay attention, because this is only a small portion of the market, and they are more focused on the category of the market that doesn’t care if the juice is flown overnight on a concord from Australia!

  9. Robert - August 13, 2008

    Why should they be held to a higher standard than

  10. Robert - August 13, 2008

    @Julian “But of course, we don�t expect the Telegraph and the rest of the corporate media to go after Shell, do we?”
    Now that would be nice. I can’t stand watching the Olympics because of the massive green-dribble coming out about how wholesome the food is at MacDonalds. Or, how great Exxon is for giving freakin’ mosquito nets to it’s employees in Africa. China is building roads and infrastructure in China and Exxon is passing out mosquito nets–and this makes them a humane and kinder company?
    Pete, an indepth story on these bogus claims would be worth reading. Whether you wrote it or just found it and re-posted it.

  11. Sheila - August 13, 2008

    These days are filled with people trying to grow companies that are “Green” and I applaud them. I must say though that I don’t want false advertising from anyone. Our lives are filled with images of conformity and the “green” movement that is now taking hold should place itself to the highest standards. Please let’s not have the same old, same old. I feel this is the right time for TRUTH in order for us to continue to experience this beautiful planet. Let’s keep the movement pure.

  12. Pete - August 13, 2008

    @Robert – I’m assuming the “immature” label is irony?
    Perhaps I haven’t made my point here clear enough. Innocent doesn’t market itself on its green credentials. I don’t believe they’re trying to sell a “higher standard” unless the higher standard you refer to is of smoothie quality.
    If you take the line that any company with good corporate social responsibility practices should be held to a higher standards than others then you seem to me to provide a very big disincentive to companies to be socially responsible.
    Sure, it was a mistake for the website to be out of date. Misleading, I accept. But it’s not greenwashing!

  13. Steve - August 13, 2008

    Well, perhaps the silver lining in a “greenwashing” cloud is that positive environmental behavior has become desireable enough that lots of folks want to jump on the bandwagon. It may be faddish, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

  14. Trace - August 13, 2008

    I agree with Pete. Our goal as environmentalists should always be to try and improve. I wouldn’t buy these Innocent smoothies because they look like they come in a plastic bottle. But, I wouldn’t judge you for buying them. To crucify any company for failing to live up to a standard that we probably don’t live up to ourselves seems defeating and a little hypocritical. And also, I have a feeling this is exactly what the conservatives like to see us doing. Gnashing our teeth and eating our own so that they don’t have to.

  15. Alex - August 13, 2008

    Trace, I have to disagree. No one is “crucifying” Innocent for a standard that we created- Innocent created the standard when they posted the claim on their website. Whether or not Innocent was consciously attempting to mislead, the fact remains that they made a claim about the environmental friendliness of their product that was not true. This seems to exactly fit the description of “greenwashing” regardless of the intentions behind the statement.

  16. Brian - August 13, 2008

    extreme? excuse me, but just because a group (or an individual) isn’t silent and submissive doesn’t qualify them as “extreme”.
    please, let’s look at these words like extreme and greenwashing for their meanings, and drop the fox news tactic of divisive shallow “debate”.
    more extreme would be corporate ownership of almost all media and subsequent redefining of the term “extreme” as in “enviromental extremists are the biggest threat to our world,” (rumsfeld).
    by all means, continue on with the discussion about “greenwashing” — and then let’s get into “the carbon market,” about the most absurd, absolvist proposition out there. sponsored, of course, by wall street and oil companies….

  17. dan germain - August 14, 2008

    I’m Dan from innocent. Came across this post and read it with interest. It’s true that we made a goof on our website. We’ve learned our lesson and will be updating things with venom from now on.
    Just wanted to say thanks for posting this and for all the comments. We learn every time we read stuff like this, and we shall get better.
    PS our bottles are made from 100% recycled plastic, so that might help the commenter above feel more comfortable about drinking our smoothies, I hope.

  18. bob fulford - August 14, 2008

    I’m a little surprised that no one keyed on the fact that the fruit from which the drink is made is shipped in from great distances. One of the “truths” about global warming and green is that affordable food from great distances is inherently not good for many reasons. If Innocent made their drink in England from apples, pears, grapes,and berries rather than from bananas, oranges,and kiwi fruit, I’d be more disposed to applaud them.
    And while you are at it use reuse bottles rather than recycleable bottles.

  19. dan germain - August 14, 2008

    Hello again
    Sorry, probably should have been clearer – our bottles are made from 100% recycled plastic, so we are reusing waste materials to make them.
    Dan (at innocent)

  20. michael - August 18, 2008

    Until the consumer accepts strawberries are only in season during June in the NE for example, we will continue eating Breaburn Apples from Australia in February. There is – or should be -a rythm between the cyclical nature of mother nature and we humans…but marketing and globalization have desensitized us and we expect fruit of every imaginable variety to be available in so many forms 365 days a year.
    At some level, we consumers should be labled Greenwashers until our demands – based upon our habits – change. When we look forward to strawberries in June and then to peaches and so on, and know when the seaon id over it’s over, companies will more than likely respond by developing a kinship with nature while not worrying about a ‘green credo’ that means nothing. We shouldn’t blame Innocent or Pepsie…we should blame ourselves…

  21. Brian - August 19, 2008

    so true about the strawberries being moved around the world on demand. good thought.
    but can that really compare to the ad blitzes of “ford, the green car company”? or to chevron saving a family of twelve birds vs. the millions it kills? or what about the ridiculous carbon trading market being pushed (by those who emit carbon)?

  22. michael - August 20, 2008

    Oh I agree! I look at some auto flex fuel offerings…some of these vehicles are brought to markets that have zero flex fuel options, but the manufacturer gets a tax break regardless…to who’s benefit?
    I’m not debating flex fuel here, just that there is a lot of manipulation at many levels as you suggest.
    We consumers need to become more educated so that we learn to challenge the offerings either quietly or out load thereby making more intelligent choices for ourselves…this at some point applies pressure to manufacturers…? One hopes…and somehow, strawberries just taste better in June.
    I agree with your reply for sure!

  23. Anonymous - August 20, 2008

    GM makes a big hybrid SUV, that gets IMO crappy gas mileage and then wins an award for the Best ecological car out there- Yet GM can claim to be a green company-and their cars are the official car of planet green-now tell me greenwashing doesnt work

  24. Adam Stein - August 20, 2008

    Isn’t GM in danger of going out of business? Aren’t they trying to save themselves by betting big on a mass-produced electric car?
    Point being, however annoying “greenwashing” might be, it doesn’t actually seem to matter all that much.

  25. michael - August 21, 2008

    …Adam…if GM is going under despite all the greenwashing, perhaps we consumers are more intelligent than I give credit…?

  26. Adam Stein - August 21, 2008

    Well, that wasn’t really the direction I was going either. Mostly I think a lot of the activities that fall under the nebulous category of greenwashing are just pretty irrelevant. Consumers don’t care one way or the other about awards for best hybrid SUV. You can take this as a sign of intelligence or indifference. Either way, the main real-world impact of so-called greenwashing is to annoy environmentalists.

  27. michael - August 21, 2008

    …and or, another marketing opportunity from which to exagerate?