Beware of the wolf in 
“eco-friendly” clothing

You’re in front of the tube, soft music starts playing and somebody starts talking about the environment and Mother Nature and, gosh darn it, we’re all in this together. Your first thought: oil company ad. And you’re usually right.

Growing environmental awareness has led to a revolution. Mostly a revolution in advertising and PR. It’s the phenomenon known as “greenwashing”: when companies twist and stretch and wriggle to find some eco-friendly angle to pitch concentrated beach tar or gas-powered can openers. Or big greasy bags of potato chips.

The 100 Mile Diet is the book from Vancouver authors James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith that started as a Tyee blog and went on to become a culinary movement. “Locavores” are dedicated to encouraging the consumption of locally produced food. Eating locally, the idea goes, promotes sustainable regional agriculture and potentially reduces greenhouse gas emissions created by the long-distance transportation of food. Locally sourced food – it sounds great. Best of all, it has now led to the technical and marketing innovation known as the Chip Tracker.

Chip Tracker, sadly, is not the name of a hard-boiled private detective. It’s a recent invention from Frito-Lay, an obvious if somewhat muddled attempt to cash in on the local-food craze. A code found on every bag of its potato chips can be entered at a website, along with a zip code, to let you know where the potatoes inside were grown. 

Chip factories are generally located near potato farms, which may or may not be in your neighbourhood. But once made, the chips are heavily packaged and shipped hither and yon. In fact, visits to the Frito-Lay Chip Tracker website by B.C. snack hounds make entirely the wrong point for locavores: the site doesn’t even accept Canadian postal codes. If you choose Frito-Lay, it seems your chip of choice did not come from this country. Besides, wherever it was made, it’s still junk. Surely the point of the 100-mile diet is not to eat processed, salty, fatty snacks, locally sourced. (They make Mars bars in Newmarket, Ontario, which could make their 100-mile diet a real disaster.) Someday perhaps Frito-Lay will launch an Oil Tracker and a Salt Tracker to complete the picture. Potato chips also contain a carcinogen called acrylamide, a byproduct of the cooking process. Arguably, if the potatoes are local, so is the acrylamide. Reassuring.

Who better to engage in greenwashing than the makers of detergent? Witness the recent Tide ad campaign for its concentrated laundry product. A soft-soap TV ad explains the environmental benefits of this approach: smaller bottles mean less shipping volume, thus fewer trucks needed to stock grocery stores, thus fewer emissions.

Smaller bottles are certainly not a bad thing (a manufacturing trend likely helped along by Wal-Mart’s decision to stop selling unconcentrated brands). But the logic is a bit squiffy. Advertising is meant to sell products. If that Tide ad does its job, the result will be increased sales of those smaller bottles, which will mean more shipping trucks and more emissions. The truly environmentally responsible approach would be to make a really crappy TV ad: “Tide’s dirt-fighting action is powerful enough to defoliate the Amazon Delta. For God’s sake don’t spill any on yourself or the ones you love.” Sales would drop, meaning fewer emissions. Either that or transport via mule train. That’s the problem with capitalism: it naturally tends toward the rapacious.

Green advertising from fossil fuel purveyors such as Shell, Chevron and the American coal industry underscores the essentially defensive nature of such campaigns. BP PLC (British Petroleum) famously poured hundreds of millions into an ad campaign with the slogan “BP: Beyond Petroleum” without evidence of any concomitant policy changes. Some green­washing attempts are laughed off stage. In the U.K., a billboard campaign touting the Hummer as “fuel efficient” quickly disappeared amid howls of derision. 

Those with the biggest potential PR problems are generally the loudest in proclaiming their eco-appeal, proving that when it comes to new green technology, nothing beats wind power.