When it comes to meaningless eco-claims, the term sustainable may soon join the ranks of natural, green and Earth smart. I’m completely fed up with companies prancing around with puffed chests and a sustainable label because they employ one, maybe two, Earth-friendly initiatives.
Take, for example, Monsanto. Did you know the genetically modified seed giant considers itself “the sustainable company”? Monsanto’s website states: “Sustainable agriculture is at the core of Monsanto … By 2030, we will do our part by: producing more, conserving more, improving lives.”
Aside from the fact that 2030 is a long way away, improving lives seems a bit of a stretch for a company associated with hundreds of suicides in India after farmers couldn’t turn a profit growing Monsanto cotton. Then there are the many Monsanto challengers who’ve lost their livelihoods after being legislatively bullied. When it comes to being green, Monsanto was identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a “potentially responsible party” for at least 56 toxic U.S. sites, and has been sued numerous times for damaging the health of employees and residents through pollution and poisoning.
Monsanto hid its polluting ways for decades, and now we’re supposed to believe that with this new commitment toward sustainability, it’s not hiding anything from us? That’s a pretty big GM-corn bite to swallow.
Other sustainable companies
Monsanto’s not alone. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, appointed a chief sustainability officer in February 2010. Such an action would be commendable if it appeared that this person actually did something. But more than a year after it adopted a sustainable focus, the company’s questionable environmental practices remain the same. Just last December, the Humane Society of the United States released an undercover video showing pregnant pigs with large, open sores, bleeding from their mouths, and piglets being tossed around by their hind legs at a Smithfield facility in Waverly, Va.
I understand why this ship’s tough to turn. The mere size of Smithfield’s operations (reported to be as many as 10,000 hogs in some locations) makes responsibly containing waste and other animal byproducts nearly impossible. Quite simply, factory farming is not, and will never be, sustainable. The company’s public commitment to environmental practices is clearly a response to the bad press Smithfield has received from (name any notable publication), along with the public’s growing food-safety concerns. It doesn’t even appear that Smithfield is buying its own message. Before announcing the new position, at the National Meat Association’s annual conference, CEO Larry Pope had already lined up a bevy of excuses why a focus on sustainability and animal welfare would be difficult—namely mega-buyers (read: Wal-Mart) demanding rock-bottom prices.
Google any known environmental offender and the word “sustainable,” and you’ll see how easily companies are misleading the public. At BP, “sustainability reporting covers all the nonfinancial aspects of our operations—health and safety; environment and energy; people and human rights,” according to the company’s website. What does that even mean? On Tyson Foods’ website, “sustainability touches every aspect of our company and our operations.”
Companies know sustainable claims are all the rage with consumers and that people will sink dollars into brands they believe in. The problem is, because everyone’s greenwashing, one by one, we’re losing valuable eco-claims.