Companies in New Zealand make a lot of claims about their environmental values and support of local communities – but is it all a greenwashed dream? Jenny Keown lifts the lid on ethical consumerism.
Picture this: you’re a mum rushing through the supermarket, wailing child in tow, headache forming and needing to make a split second decision about cream for your baby’s dry skin.
Aveeno’s baby moisture cream catches your eye. It doesn’t look cheap with gauche plastic packaging. Muted tones, an understated elegance, it can’t be that bad. Oh and look, it has ‘natural colloidal oatmeal’ and is ‘fragrance-free’. It’s even ‘paediatrician recommended’. Sold! You grab the bottle, calm your screaming child and march to the counter, feeling stupid that you don’t know what colloidal oatmeal means and hoping it does the trick.
This was me seven years ago – a tired new mum with a little baby, making big decisions about what to put on my child’s skin with the aptitude of someone with a partial lobotomy.
Fast forward to today and two more children later (and some time to get busy on Google and research products), I like to think I’ve wised up on the modern marketing game. And I’m not unique. Consumers are savvier than ever before, with the ability to research products or stage mass boycott of brands via social media if they discover something they don’t like.
Because you’ve got to be in some serious denial if you aren’t affected in some way by the dire state of the planet, data from Conscious Consumers shows that the top concerns for New Zealanders include climate change, waste minimisation, animal care, and care of workers. Companies know this, so as environmental concerns have risen, so has the marketing phenomenon known as greenwashing, where companies – knowingly or unwittingly – make unsubstantiated claims about the sustainability of their products.
Once you start to lift the proverbial lid on greenwashing, it’s actually kind of horrifying. You know that Aveeno cream? It turns out that one of the ingredients is distearyldimonium chloride, a known irritant for skin, eyes and lungs, according to the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetics database.
It gets better: another ingredient is dimethicone, a silicon-based molecule. And while there’s no direct evidence linking dimethicone to environmental damage according to Ecostore’s website, other similar silicon-based molecules are known to persist in the environment and be slow to biodegrade. So probably not great for aquatic wildlife once it’s washed down the drain.
Kath Dewar, managing director for GoodSense which “works to foster best practice in green marketing in New Zealand”, says the level of greenwashing here is a real concern. She says even if there’s good intent behind green messages, organisations aren’t thinking them through or addressing the reality of their communications.
Last year, Tourism New Zealand was lambasted for promoting a video which showed a happy tourist drinking from a stream as part of their 100% Pure New Zealand campaign (a slogan which the government has signalled is on its way out). Over five million people have viewed the video since it aired in July 2017. But in reality, three-quarters of Kiwis are either very or extremely concerned about the pollution of rivers and lakes, a recent Colmar Brunton poll found.
The real stink around rivers relates to E. coli, a group of bacteria commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including humans. E.coli in fresh water can indicate the presence of pathogens (disease-causing organisms) from animal or human faeces. Campylobacter is one of the most common pathogens associated with animal and human faeces, but it’s difficult to measure so we look at E. coli instead. And according to data from the Ministry for the Environment, E. coli concentration was 22 times higher in rivers within urban areas and 9.5 times higher in pastoral (rural) areas between 2009-2013. You don’t want to drink it!
Dewar also points to the example of petrol company Gull, whose ‘Driven by Nature’ signage to advertise their Force 10 biofuel/petrochemical mix is displayed on their forecourts. The ad features a kiwi riding a skateboard and a kea holding a set of keys among trees and a lake (yes, tacky). But guess what that “10” stands for? It stands for the fact that only 10% of the fuel is ethanol. “It was encouraging to see them come out with a biofuel initiative, but I am gutted they are comfortable with this advertising,” says Dewar.
Gull managing director David Bodger says the company has a right to publicise its fuel and says it’s a premier product. “I can see how that could be a critique, but [we] aren’t out there buying time on TVNZ. It’s only in our forecourts,” he says. “You see people going shopping in the supermarket with their jute bag over their shoulders… It’s really difficult to project what we do to our tanks that are awfully smelly. That’s why we have gone with the imagery of the kiwi and kea.”
What about using palm oil, often linked to forest and habitat destruction? Is that bad? Ecostore uses certified sustainable palm oil in the majority of its products. This isn’t strictly a case of greenwashing because Ecostore is open and transparent about its ingredients – including palm oil on its website.
Ecostore’s Pablo Kraus says palm and palm kernel oils are the best natural source of vegetable oil to use in a variety of applications from food, fuel, cosmetics and detergents. No other vegetable oil has the yield per hectare that palm has.
“The issue is not the plant itself, but the companies that engage in deforestation, peat destruction, human rights abuses and displacement of indigenous people in their push to create more plantations in the world’s most ecologically sensitive areas such as Malaysia and Indonesia. When produced responsibly through adherence to the criteria of the Round Table for the Sustainable Production of Palm Oil (RSPO), such negative consequences are avoided. Ecostore is committed to using RSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oils in our product range.”
Still, it left me feeling uneasy. I conducted a highly unscientific social media poll of 40 friends and most of them said they didn’t know Ecostore used palm oil either and would like that fact labelled on their product.
The reality is you don’t need to look far for examples of greenwashing. But what can you do about it? Aside from giving up on modern day life or living out your days as a disenchanted hippy on a bit of land?
Ethique founder Brianne West says its a tough question. “I’d say don’t buy anything you can’t pronounce like the scientific name of some of the products. And 100% natural doesn’t always mean 100% safe.”
Ethique sells shampoo bars that tick most sustainability boxes for some advice. All Ethique’s products use biodegradable wrappers, and are made and manufactured in New Zealand. Since its founding in 2012, the company estimates it’s prevented the manufacture (and disposal) of more than 150,000 containers globally. If you want an ethical company, then look for one which has a living wage, Fair Trade certification and charitable donations, says West.
Dewar adds that vague language like ‘natural’ and ‘biodegradable’ are a red flag. “Look for the businesses who are investing in proper Fair Trade and organic certifications, programmes that cost money for a good reason. There are companies that make fluffy self claims about being fair trade, so look for the gold standard certifications,” she says.
You can also influence outcomes more directly. Conscious Consumers provides technology that lets retailers see what trends New Zealanders care about, and respond by changing their business practices. Consumers can influence businesses by registering with the Good Spend Counter app, where you list the values you want to see in a business, add your payment card and spend.
Conscious Consumers co-founder Melissa Keys says 500 businesses have signed up to the scheme and 11,000 consumers have registered their values. She says that since 2013, Conscious Consumers’ has helped 150 businesses improve waste minimisation practices and become free range and fair trade.
If you feel misled as a consumer, you can always make a complaint to New Zealand’s competition watchdog, the Commerce Commission. A current priority for the commission are claims that consumers can’t verify things for themselves, particularly those relating to food products and country of origin, such as ‘free range’, ‘organic’ or ‘Made in New Zealand’.
For example, the commission ruled in 2016 that health supplement company Topline International, which sold pollen under the NatureBee brand, was misleading consumers by claiming that its bee pollen was from the hardworking bees of New Zealand’s pristine wilderness when the bees and pollen were actually from China.
The key message to businesses is: if you can’t back it up, don’t say it. And if you’re a consumer and you don’t understand it or have a nagging feeling that it’s a load of collywobbles, it probably is. Do your research, find the brands who are doing their best to do the right thing, and never take anything on face value.
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