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Greenwashing Profiteers: Part II

3p Contributor | Tuesday July 13th, 2010 | 2 Comments

By Siobhán McGurrin, journalism graduate student, UCA London

(Please read Part 1 of “Greenwashing Profiteers” here)

In terms of money, both Cadbury and Nestlé are hardly without the means to sort questions over their operations; with a turnover of £6 billion (USD$9 billion) last year, Mr. Cadbury took home £808 million (USD$1.2 billion) in profit, whilst Mr. Nestle took a staggering £6.2 billion (USD$9.3 billion) home, just under 10% of their annual turnover. Although both are putting money into their self-policed Cocoa Plans over the next 10 years, in the case of Nestlé, it only represents a measly 1% of their annual turnover spread across the duration of the project, so it’s hardly breaking the bank.

As Fairtrade works to even the free-trade playing field in the poorest areas, ensuring a premium for produce and a bit extra for the community, companies claiming to use our pennies for good are clearly not well intentioned enough to use their own for the same purpose. Noticeably, the price of Dairy Milk has not changed at all, as they have pledged their commitment to absorbing the cost on behalf of the British consumer. But according to John Grant, author of Co-opportunity: Join Up for a Sustainable, Resilient, Prosperous World, “Cadbury say they needed to pay Fairtrade rates anyway to secure their supply (and stop losing farmers to other crops)”, bringing another question mark over their future intentions for Fairtrade.

When it comes to the eco side of the scale, Rainforest Alliance, may also not be as good as we would hope, as “critics say it is Fairtrade Lite – an attempt to benefit from the appearance of doing good, at less financial cost” according to Grant. Working worldwide in over 70 countries, Rainforest Alliance ensures that “farming, forestry and tourism are environmentally compatible, socially advantageous and economically productive” within local communities. Recent converts to their scheme have included Mars with their Galaxy Smooth Milk Bar in March this year, promoting their association by claiming “not only does Galaxy taste good, it does good”.

But how much good are they really doing? After signing up to saving the rainforest, they have come under damaging scrutiny for the use of palm oil in their products, which incidentally is one of the leading causes of deforestation. Whilst Greenpeace have been off campaigning against Nestlé’s use of palm oil (in their newly Fairtrade certified four finger Kit Kat no less) everybody seems to have forgotten about little old Mars, apart from the BBC that is. Before hitting our screens with ‘Chocolate: The Bitter Truth’, Panorama delved into the illegal world of palm oil production in February, exposing: Haribo, Kelloggs and Warburtons as well as Nestlé, Cadbury and Mars in their ‘Palm Oil Products and the Weekly Shop’ investigation. Just a matter of weeks later, the partnership between Rainforest Alliance and Galaxy was unveiled, forcing them to leap to Mars’ defence, stating; “Mars is using palm oil in the Galaxy chocolate bar, but it’s very difficult to trace the origin of palm oil and to know what its impacts are, exactly.” So the traceability within palm oil is conveniently just as difficult as within cocoa production then, yet access to the unsustainable and ultimately illegal kind appears to be easy enough for companies not working through designated NGOs Greenpalm or Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

A more believable and established collaboration with Rainforest Alliance has been through UK based Kenco, who have been offering sustainable coffee beans since 2005. Although Kenco is also owned by Kraft (aren’t they all?), it seems to be the most genuinely committed to the environment based on more than just the Rainforest Alliance affiliation. Working for sustainable packaging and eco refills, Kenco even boasts a young eco designer of the year competition for children throughout the UK. Focussing heavily on “100% commitment to providing the coffee growing community with better wages, education, healthcare and environment protection”, Kenco achieved full sustainability within their freeze dried coffee ranges earlier on this year. Without bombarding us with masses of eco information, they have instead “…pushed the people aspect of Rainforest Alliance, not saving the rainforest. It’s not saying about helping little green frogs, its saying we help build schools, we help create wells” which according to Arnold “…ticks boxes big time,” as “people will inherently look after themselves and each other”. A shrewd move in marketing terms and not completely outside the realm of truth, but hasn’t this just created more confusion over the issue of which certifications do what?

Swinging between commitment and intention, when companies pledge to be completely NGO certified within 10 years, are they just marketing the proverbial cart before the horse? “Intent is a good way of making things public, you say you’re going to but you never have to do it. A lot of public will respond to that just as well as doing it, because it’s showing an action” claims marketing expert Arnold. But are we really that gullible? According to a recent Times Survey  [editor’s note, the author conducted the study but it has not yet been published] which questioned reader’s knowledge about the two NGOs, many were positive about large companies getting involved and raising awareness, but were swift to follow with sceptical considerations that are not dealt with in their feel good campaigns. Explaining her reaction upon hearing the news that Fairtrade had got into bed with Cadbury, Dr. Kath Shelton, a 27 year veteran Traidcraft volunteer exclaimed “…what I immediately said is where do you get your other cocoa from?”; a question that has disparaged many ethical shoppers from heading Cadbury’s way.

There are of course a number of companies who have waited for full certification before marketing their greenness to the world, such as PG Tips who worked with Rainforest Alliance for 2 years before announcing their commitment in February this year. Shying away from creating a media frenzy, they have elevated their brand into a different league of ethically founded companies including Divine and Clipper, who were the first to launch a Fairtrade tea back in 1994. Although as Grant admits, corporations such as Cadbury’s “version of Fairtrade will always be a pale imitation of the good that social ventures like Café Direct do in the world.”

So where is the middle ground? Expecting immediate change is clearly too unrealistic at this stage, but ensuring that when money changes hands, it goes in the right direction should remain a pre-requisite across ethical consumerism. Buying just because of the certification may make us feel better in the short term, but with a little more information we can force the much needed transparency that will guarantee change for those we are trying to help. As Mary Catherine O’Connor, editor of Triple Pundit stresses, companies should “show (their) shortfalls but be honest and humble about efforts to improve”, rather than showing off green credentials before they have established any. This in turn can only boost consumerism in the long run. As 67% of people claim that they want to purchase from an ethical company, but don’t consider themselves to be an eco or ethical shopper (survey), demonstrating blatant confusion over how such aims can be achieved. With a definitive 86% of us feeling personally responsible to ensure that workers are fairly compensated (according to Fairtrade’s recent poll), it is clear that ethical consumerism is here to stay.  No longer is it a secondary concern for consumers, but has become an important consideration in our weekly shop.


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  • http://twitter.com/mikebradyuk Mike Brady

    Great article. It is good to be sceptical of companies claiming to be ethical with token products, when they could have a far greater impact by improving their business methods as a whole. That is certainly true of Nestlé which launched its Fairtrade Parterns' Blend coffee after Oxfam targeted the coffee industry for driving down prices paid to farmers below the cost of production – it involves just 0.1% of the coffee farmers dependent on the company, but featured in international media campaigns about what Nestlé was doing to end the coffee crisis.

    I'd also advise being wary of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. For example, you say, 'Working for sustainable packaging and eco refills, Kenco even boasts a young eco designer of the year competition for children throughout the UK.'

    Nestlé is the master of initiating or sponsoring things like this to try to improve its image and promote its products. The Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, is on record stating that any support for good causes must have the purpose of improving shareholder value. For example, in the UK it has its 'box tops for education' scheme which encourages teachers to promote Nestlé cereals to school children so the school gains a few pence for every box top brought into the school – the majority of Nestlé's cereals are criticised for high levels of sugar and salt (the exception being Shredded Wheat, which, of course, is the one that features in Nestlé's promotion of the full range). Many schools have decided not to support the scheme, often because of concern over Nestlé's pushing of baby milk in violation of international marketing standards, which undermines breastfeeding and contributes to the needless death and suffering of babies around the world. Sometimes this has been driven by the students, sometimes by parents or teachers. Baby Milk Action has exercises tailored to the national curriculum for addressing the issue of corporate sponsorship in schools. See:
    http://www.babymilkaction.org/spin/

    Baby Milk Action has added Nestlé's Fairtrade Partners' Blend coffee and four-finger KitKat to the boycott list. Anyone who wishes to support farmers is better advised to look to companies that support Fair Trade principles throughout their business, not just as a token bolt on for public relations purposes.

  • Stuart Singleton-White

    Oh dear, it is a shame that what should be an interesting article is so full of inaccuracies when it comes to its criticisms of the Rainforest Alliance. Perhaps it would have helped if the journalist checked her facts before going to press.

    Selectively quoting an organisation’s position, in this case the Rainforest Alliance’s on palm oil, is an easy way to make the facts fit a predetermined point of view, but that doesn’t make the quote correct within the context from which it was drawn. So your readers might want to read the full statement and Rainforest Alliance position on palm oil, they can here: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/agriculture…. and here: http://thefrogblog.org.uk/tag/palm-oil/

    As I pointed out in my comment to the first article “Greenwashing Profiteers: part I” the commitment by companies to the Rainforest Alliance is more than simply “intent”. It is a transparent commitment that has helped to move the likes of PG Tips, Kenco and Costa Coffee (and the vast quantity of commodities they buy) further along their sustainability journeys. It is frankly disingenuous to suggest that all companies are the same and to hint that the likes of Unilever and Kraft are not serious about their public commitments or their communications to their customers.

    Finally, the articles comments about PR Tips are simply wrong. Unilever, who own the PG Tips brand, have a long standing commitment to sustainability. PG Tips first carried the Rainforest Alliance “green frog” seal on their packs in 2007, when the content of the tea was 30 per cent certified. It soon increased to 50 per cent certified and achieved full certification at the start of 2010. This is all part of Unilever’s commitment to have all their black tea in the global Lipton’s tea range fully certified by 2015. Not intent that is simply trying to mislead consumers but a demonstrable and serious commitment to sustainability.

    Stuart Singleton-White
    Communications Advisor, The Rainforest Alliance