The supermarket landscape is changing. Shelves previously filled with meat and dairy are slowly making room for a wide range of plant-based alternatives. As more science emerges which demonstrates the negative impact the meat industry has on the environment, more of us are opting to dodge the steak and buy the tofu. If it’s cheat day, we may opt to grab a veggie burger, or soy-based chicken substitute, thinking we’re doing our small, but meaningful, part in slowing climate change. But what happens when the plant-based substitutes we buy are produced and distributed by massive corporations which also continue to farm and slaughter living creatures for profit? Let’s take a look at why Big Meat greenwashing is stealthily destroying the environment, and why it may be even more harmful than just selling meat.
As anyone who’s taken the mindful step towards cutting back on their animal consumption will have noticed, the number of options for faux meat and dairy have seen astronomical growth over the last decade. In fact, research shows that the US has seen a staggering 61% increase in sales of non-dairy milks since 2012. Sales of meatless beef and chicken substitutes increased by 37.8% between 2017 and 2019. According to Bettina Makalintal at Vice, between the months of March and May this year, sales of vegetarian meat alternatives skyrocketed by a whopping 264% as more people started cooking from home on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The growing success of plant-based products hasn’t gone unnoticed by Big Meat, though. And now, these companies are angling for their share of profits by employing an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality.
This raises questions about whether the small percentages of their organisations turning towards the production and sale of plant-based alternatives helps or hinders the cause. Most likely, this greenwashing causes more problems than it solves.
What is Greenwashing?
You’re probably already familiar with the term “whitewashing”. Greenwashing isn’t nearly as commonly used, but it can have a number of serious implications that deserve more attention than they’re getting.
Greenwashing refers to companies spending more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on actually minimising their impact on the environment. The practice serves to embellish the benefit of the product, while sweeping its myriad negative impacts under the rug. This deceitful advertising misleads consumers who are trying to make eco-friendly, vegan choices into supporting organisations who value profit above meaningful change and continue to utilise environmentally unsustainable practices.
Despite the fact that the term is still relatively new to many of us, the practice is not. Back in the mid-1980s, for example, oil company Chevron commissioned a series of costly television and print advertisements to broadcast its apparent environmental dedication. The People Do campaign showed Chevron employees protecting bears, sea turtles, butterflies and all kinds of other lovable creatures, and even went on to win an Effie advertising award. As critics later brought to light, though, many of the environmental programs that Chevron promoted in its campaign were mandated by law – meaning they didn’t actually have a choice in the matter in the first place. Furthermore, their butterfly preserve – supposedly proof that they were indeed a dedicated bastion of environmental protection – cost Chevron a meagre $5,000 per year to run. The ads promoting it, on the other hand, it cost millions of dollars to produce and broadcast.
Bruce Watson, writing for the Guardian, further points out that “The People Do campaign also ignored Chevron’s spotty environmental record: while it was running the ads, it was also violating the clean air act, the clean water act and spilling oil into wildlife refuges.”
As such, Chevron and its People Do campaign have become synonymous with greenwashing. The practice, however, is becoming more and more prevalent – and more relevant than ever – as we race against the clock to slow climate change.
In February 2017,Walmart paid $1 million to settle greenwashing claims that alleged the they sold plastics misleadingly marketed as environmentally responsible. Adryan Corcione writes for Business News Daily that even the water industry is guilty of greenwashing its products. “How many plastic bottles have you seen with colourful images of rugged mountains, pristine lakes and flourishing wildlife printed on their labels?” he asks.
This practice, however insidious, prevails because it’s successful. According to Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability Report, 66% of shoppers are willing spend more on a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. That figure jumps up to 73% among millennial consumers. And now the meat industry is hopping on board.
How Does Big Meat Greenwashing affect climate change?
Studies have shown time and time again that the fewer animal by-products you consume, the more environmentally sustainable your lifestyle is, and the more “transformative potential” it has for the environment. The land use and greenhouse gases involved in animal agriculture are major contributors to our global climate crisis – which scientists estimate that we only have seven years left to try to reverse. “The science is there,” writes Makalintal. “Moving toward a future less dependent on animal agriculture is both responsible and unavoidable.”
But how can we lower the impact of animal agriculture on the environment if we’re unknowingly buying products by the very organisations who are most guilty of the destruction in the first place? Of course, it seems at first glance like a step in the right direction that Big Meat is channeling some of their resources into producing plant-based sustainable foods. But this is a double-edged sword that deserves a little more consideration.
Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of food and agriculture at Friends of the Earth, told Vice that she doesn’t see the meat industry’s venture into vegetarian options as an effective step toward a more sustainable food system. “I actually think that these large company investments will do very little to cut the massive impact of the world’s largest meat companies,” she said. “Unless these companies actually slash their emissions, then they are not doing what they need to do to address the climate crisis.”
Let’s look at some numbers: Meat, fish, and dairy production use roughly 83% of global arable land and are responsible for around 57% of our entire food system’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a Science study on reducing food’s environmental impact. What’s even more disproportionate – and rather upsetting – is that all of that animal agriculture and the environmental harm it causes accounts for only 37% of the protein in our entire food supply.
“Producing a single kilogram of beef emits 60 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2-equivalents), while farming peas (which are used in numerous vegetarian meat substitutes) emits just one kilogram of these emissions per kilogram produced,” writes Makalintal. And just because they’re now opting to increase their profits by adding vegetarian-friendly ranges alongside their meat, doesn’t mean they intend to lessen the animal products they produce – especially as parts of the world continue to increase their unsustainable meat consumption.
“With these statistics in mind,” says Makalintal, it’s difficult to see how Big Meat could be meaningfully interested in environmental causes while continuing to obtain most of their profits from factory farming.”
Many companies are labelling their meat substitutes as sustainable or “guilt-free” in a self-congratulatory way, without providing any evidence to prove their claims. When well-meaning consumers fall prey to this deceitful and manipulative marketing technique they’re not only becoming unwilling puppets of a large and sinister capitalist system, but they’re causing the exact harm they were trying to avoid in the first place.
“[Meat companies] are meeting the market, but they are not addressing climate change,” Hamerschlag told Vice. “Let’s just be clear about that: They are not slashing their greenhouse gas emissions—in fact, they continue to grow, because they’re expanding their operations in the meat sector.”
Buying meat-free products from large organisations that also continue to grow in the animal agriculture sector only funds and supports that growth, and leads to none of the meaningful change that the fancy, greenwashed packaging claims to promote.
What can I do?
It’s challenging, on an individual level, to know exactly how to navigate this issue. It seems the easiest way to ensure that we’re not still supporting the rapacious meat industry is to buy from smaller, vegan startups. Even then though, it’s not always clear on the surface who our purchases are actually benefiting.
“While consumers could ostensibly avoid some of these issues by buying vegan food from smaller start-ups and independent companies,” writes Makalintal, “financial ties to the meat industry are common: OSI, which supplies meat to McDonald’s, also produces Impossible Burgers, and Lightlife is owned by Canadian meat packaging goods company Maple Leaf Foods”.
This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a perfectly environmentally friendly lifestyle, even after going vegan. Perhaps perfection shouldn’t be what we’re after, though. It’s common knowledge that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is the safest bet when trying to be a more ethical and environmentally conscious consumer, but if striving to do it perfectly stops you from trying at all, toss the whole notion of perfection out the window. If everybody made small changes, it would have a far greater impact than if only a handful are militant about it. So just do your best. Here are a few tips to help you out:
- Where possible, do some research about they products you’re buying. Avoid products from companies who have obvious ties to unsustainable animal products (like KFC). Don’t fall prey to obvious misdirection.
- Don’t fall for fluffy language. Obscure terms like “eco-friendly” and “guilt-free” are often used to makes us feel comfortable with a product, despite giving us no clear indication about what they actually mean.
- Similarly, watch out for Gobbledygook – Jargon and information that are used to confuse consumers, which only a scientist could actually check or understand.
- Ignore the pictures: Packaging is just that; Packaging. The happy cartoon animals on the box in no way represent the product or its producers.
- Notice irrelevant claims which aim to grab your attention. Often you’ll come across emphasis on one tiny green attribute when everything else is destructive.
- Forget the “Best-in-class” boasts: Companies love to declare that they are slightly greener than the all the others – while not highlighting the fact that those others are pretty damn terrible, making them, still pretty terrible.
- And finally, if there’s no proof, and no third-party data to back up a claim, you have no reason to believe it at all.
Do what you can to ensure that you’re making ethical choices when you go to the supermarket. Every effort counts. Don’t feel guilty when you do realise that you’ve been manipulated by Big Meat greenwashing, but strive to do better in future. It’s the responsibility of all of us, individuals and corporations alike, to make the changes necessary to reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet.
Follow the science, do your research, use your brain.
There is no planet B.