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, the evil agro-giant Monsanto. Did you know last year the genetically modified seed company changed its tagline to: The sustainable company? Please excuse me while I throw up. The company states: "Sustainable agriculture is at the core of Monsanto. We do our part by: producing more, conserving more and improving lives."
Really? Who's buying this load of crap?
Aside from the glaring fallacy "improving lives" (perhaps the company has selective memory when it comes to the farmers who committed suicide in India when they couldn't turn a profit growing Monsanto seeds, or the many Monsanto challengers who've lost their livelihoods after being legislatively bullied) for more than 40 years the company dumped toxic waste into a small Alabama city's streams and landfills. Monsanto was identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as being a "potentially responsible party" for at least 56 other 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 to believe, with this new commitment toward sustainability, that they're not hiding anything from us now? That's a pretty big GM-corn bite to swallow.
Monsanto's not alone. Smithfield, the world's largest pork producer, appointed last February, a chief sustainability officer. Such an action would be commendable if it appeared this person actually did something. But in the 10 months since adopting a sustainable focus, the company's questionable environmental practices remain the same.
I understand why this ship's tough to turn. The mere size of Smithfield's operations (up to 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 slew of bad press that Smithfield's received from (name any notable publication) and the public's growing food safety concerns—a 2009's swine flu outbreak in Mexico was linked to the pork packer.
It doesn't even appear that Smithfield's buying its 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 defending why a focus on sustainability and animal welfare would be difficult—namely mega buyers (read, Walmart) demanding rock bottom prices. So to Smithfield, does "sustainability" really translate to better publicists and tighter security?
The above examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Google any known environmental offender and the word "sustainable" and you'll see how easily these companies are misleading the public. Cargill is "supporting efforts to help farmers adopt sustainable agricultural management practices." At Tyson, "sustainability touches every aspect of our company and our operations."
These 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. Companies without a marketing message plastered with sustainability propaganda are perceived by consumers as out of touch or trying to hide something. The irony is that unless the United States Department of Agriculture steps in to regulate "sustainable" as they did with organic, this easily built wall of deceptive claims gives companies even more to hide.