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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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